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You know how I have mentioned in a few reviews this year that studios like Disney can and have become very complacent with how they want to deliver their animated features? How the teams at these studios want to push the boundaries on the stories they tell, but know that they have to begrudgingly stay within the boundaries since they are one of the biggest media corporations aimed at families? It must be frustrating because you can tell that they want to do more, but can’t. You can see that in their films like The Black Cauldron from 1985, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and to some degree, Raya and the Last Dragon, they feel like it could have gone further. The same goes for Disney’s other major studio, Pixar. While Pixar tends to get away with a little more than their owners with how ambitious or adult-themed their films can be, they sure did have an identity crisis after 2010. From 2011 to 2020, while still releasing great movies like Inside Out, Finding Dory, Coco, Toy Story 4, and Soul, their lineup was less than stellar. It reminds me of how Disney was back in the 60s-80s after Walt Disney died, or back in the 2000s after their streak of hits from the 90s. There are going to be growing pains, but in some ways, that is healthy. Could you imagine being forced to reinvent the wheel over and over again or else you are considered a failure? Or how the studio will function after a major founder leaves or is fired because they were a scummy individual behind the scenes? Anyway, I talk about all of this because of Pixar’s newest film, Luca.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa, written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, this is Pixar’s newest animated feature that was unfortunately sent directly to Disney+, and while you can argue about the whole theatrical scene right now due to the pandemic that we are still in, and they made sure everyone could watch the movie, it’s still a bummer they didn’t give the film a theatrical release. Still, how does this new Pixar film stack up among their 26 years of animated features? Well, let’s dive into the crystal blue waters and check out this fishy movie.
Our story revolves around Luca, voiced by Jacob Trembly, a humanoid fish being that has been told his entire life that humans are dangerous individuals and has mostly lived his life as a shepherd of fish. One day, while letting the fish graze among the kelp, he finds items from humans that have fallen into the water. As he goes to collect these items, Luca encounters another fish person named Alberto, voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer. Alberto lives on the surface world, and you find out that if sea monsters walk on land, they turn into humans. Luca gets tantalized by the land as he hangs with Alberto. That is until Luca’s parents scold Luca for going onto land and plan to send him off to the deeper part of the ocean. Luca rebels and decides to go to the human town of PortoRosso with Alberto. There, the two meet a young girl name Giulia Marcavaldo, voiced by Emma Berman, her father Massimo Marcavaldo, voiced by Marco Barricelli, a bully named Ercole Visconti, voiced by Saverio Raimondo, and learn about the human way of life. Will Luca ever go back to the ocean, or will he fall in love with the human world?
So, it’s hard to talk about this film because of the discussions being had around the studio itself. People have seemed to put Pixar on this unhealthy pedestal of if they aren’t reinventing the wheel, changing your life in the most impactful way possible, or their films don’t make you cry, then they are lesser. This discussion has popped up again due to how small the scale in story and stakes in Luca are. It’s a more casual slice-of-life/coming-of-age story than something as complex as Soul or Inside Out. Apparently, that’s a bad thing, even though animation fans have wanted to see the big studios take on smaller stories like what you would see in foreign animated films. Well, they finally do it, and while I have some complaints about how it’s handled, I enjoyed my time with Luca‘s story and themes. It was nice to see a big-budget film studio tackle a story that’s mostly about two young characters enjoying and experiencing life. It’s not about saving the world, or the risk of the fish people dying off. It’s two boys who experience the human world. Sometimes, it’s good to have a story scale back its experience. There are still themes of acceptance, discrimination, and so on, but the main deal about this story is the friendship between our two leads. The overall film is built around this, and personally, there is still a lot under the surface with the friendship and those themes of acceptance and discrimination. While they have said there is no romance between Luca and Alberto, you can pick up themes from the LGBTQ+ from how the humans treat the fish monsters and, well, the fish people themselves. Yes, the film is about a close friendship, but there may be some things that were put into the film that comes with the territory.
Animation-wise, Pixar shows why they are on top of their game. I know some people have criticized the art style, but when you ask for Pixar to change things up, well, this is what you get when you ask them to do such a thing. I found it charming, and it has its little animation details that it can call its own. I saw it used more cartoony blurring movements during some moments, and the mouth movements are pulling more from some modern cartoons. I adored the swimming animation when Luca is a fish monster, and I could go on about how they accurately catch the nervous mannerisms of a fish when Luca is hesitant to go to the surface. It reminds me of a bunch of times being in shallow water and watching fish come up to me to either check me out or nip at my skin. The designs are quite appealing, and the transition between fish and human forms is so fun to watch. The human designs are also pretty fantastic with a look that I can’t pinpoint with any other Pixar film. It shows how far we have come from 1995 to now with CGI animating humans. The visuals are quite lovely as, whether it’s accurate or not, how they portrayed a small coastal town in Italy, and the dream sequences are just a delight for the eyes. Casting-wise, I very much enjoyed who they hired. Sure, it’s odd that they didn’t stack the cast with all Italian actors due to the setting and such, but they all do a pretty good job at capturing their character’s personalities and mannerisms. I mean, when you have a cast that has Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Marina Massironi, Sandy Martin, and Sacha Baron Cohen, then you know that the cast will be pretty good. The soundtrack though, oh my goodness, the soundtrack is ear-pleasing to the nth degree! It’s one of the best soundtracks of a Pixar film ever with a mix of music composed by Dan Romer, who also composed the music for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Beasts of No Nation, and Wendy, but the soundtrack is also filled with plenty of Italian pop that blends in with the film to make for a distinct experience.
My one major complaint about Luca is that it could have taken a bit more from its obvious Ghibli inspirations by being a longer movie. It’s paced well for 90 minutes, but a lot of the charm of Ghibli films is that Miyazaki and the other directors let the characters lay around and just exist. Sure, it led to a lot of animation flexing from the hard-working animators, but it let the characters simply live their lives in their movies. Luca sort of does this, but doesn’t fully commit to it. It still had to keep the story moving and had to have a third-act conflict that ended in a happy ending. Heck, it even has a third-act conflict that, while built-up better than a lot of Ghibli films, it’s pretty predictable, since it’s about dealing with hateful individuals and discrimination. Granted, with how current events are right now, it’s sadly going to be timely.
Luca might be smaller in scale, but it’s a delightful film with a lot of charm. Could it have been even more like a Ghibli film? Sure, but at the end of the day, I still want a Pixar film to BE a Pixar film. A studio is always at their best when they are making films that have their own distinct identity and personality. I highly recommend watching Luca on Disney+ and still wish it got some kind of major theatrical release because this film would look gorgeous on the big screen. Now then, before I get to some other films, I must attend to a screener of a new Netflix original film. You probably know what it is, but if you don’t, well, you will have to wait and see.
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