Pixar was once the studio of innovation, not only in terms of technology but also in relation to story and characterisation. Some of their early conceits were built around established ideas like monsters under the bed, action figures coming to life, robots and anthropomorphised rodents but they always had a different dimension, something extra in their toy box, surprising details in the mechanics and fantastic things to add to the recipe. Even The Incredibles, which had a huge cinematic ancestry, knew what this family needed to make it feel fresh.
Even in the last five or six years when they’ve turned to making sequels, amongst this they have given us great metaphysical parables like Inside Out, Coco and Soul.
It is a little disappointing then to find that their latest film, out now with no premium charge on Disney+, heavily revisits old ground.
Luca is about a young sea monster who is fascinated by the human things he finds in his ocean habitat and starts to yearn for a life above the water. Daring to touch a boat he is soon out there where the people are and his parents have to go on a journey to search for him. It does drift away from this as the story progresses but at the start the narrative and visual markers are very reminiscent of The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo and even as it finds it own feet it still feels a lot like an animated version of Splash.
All of this wouldn’t be such a problem if the film did something new with these ideas, as Guillermo del Toro showed was magnificently possible with his beautiful Oscar winner four years ago, but the shape of Luca is just one we have seen too many times before.
Of course all this will be water off a duck’s back for the movie’s target audience and even if there is no great sea change, Luca is a charming story of friendship and adventure on the Italian Riviera. There is even something of Studio Ghibli in its blend of folklore, family and philosophy and in this respect the comparison is a good thing.
It does too often feel like an advert for Vespa but Luca has engaging characters and as you’d expect for Pixar the design and animation are lovely. The director Enrico Casarosa previously called the shots on the studio’s short film La Luna about the little boy who goes out on a boat with his father and grandfather to sweep the stars off the moon and much of the magic and charm of that brief cartoon can be seen here. The landscape and sensibilities of the country are captured delightfully as well and let’s face it, this is the only chance most of us will get to visit the Gulf of Genoa right now. Sacha Baron Cohen also voices a wonderfully weird character that feels like something Noel Fielding dreamt up and there is a strong if laboured message about acceptance, so the movie certainly has its treats for young and old alike.
The Ripley Factor:
The narrative mostly centres on two fish boys but there is also a great girl character called Giulia who gives the pair direction and agency and helps them reach their goals. She is plucky and bold and bursting with inherent feminism and a desire for adventure but you know what I’m going to say don’t you, we saw exactly the same thing already in Ellie from the opening scenes of Up.