Many decades ago, Fred Rogers wisely realized that life’s most difficult transitions could be especially confusing for children. His show met these subjects head-on, and Rogers somehow struck a tone that was both educational and soothing. In many ways, Pixar has followed this template with their own films, and this has proven to be a key ingredient to their success: For three decades, we’ve watched adorable toys, bugs, and monsters grapple with growing up, growing old, grieving, and moving on. Luca follows that grand tradition by depicting a teenage boy who struggles with being different.
The story takes place in the waters off Italy’s Cinque Terre. Luca (voice of Jacob Tremblay) is a sweet, precocious teenage boy, beset with an insatiable curiosity. Now, here’s the twist: He’s also a humanoid sea creature, replete with gills, flippers, and marine coloring. When he goes above the surface, Luca transforms into human boy, indistinguishable from the kids playing in the villages. Expose him to even a splash of water, and he reverts back to his natural form.
Luca desperately wants to learn about life on land. Unfortunately, the Italian seaside is rife with talk about sea monsters and their hideous deeds, so venturing into the world could mean life and death for the boy. As a result, his hover-parents (Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph) ban him from even thinking about the surface world. Of course, Luca can’t resist the temptation, and he meekly ventures beyond the sea.
Once there, Luca quickly befriends a fellow sea creature. Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) is about the same age, but he’s much more freewheeling and cocky when it comes to traveling between worlds. He shows Luca how to walk and talk like a human, and the boys become terrestrial besties. They soon share a dream of riding a Vespa (a sleek Italian scooter) off on a series of worldwide adventures.
Trouble arises when Luca’s parents get wind of his new life in the open air. They head for the surface, ready to dole out the punishment of a new life in the ocean’s deepest dark. Terrified, Luca and Alberto head into the nearest town to hide. They meet a Guilia (Emma Berman), a quirky, headstrong village girl, and Saverio (Ercole Visconti), the local jock-douchebag. Turns out, Guilia and Saverio are rivals in an annual “Italian triathlon,” which entails swimming, cycling, and scarfing down pasta. (Anyone who’s seen Michael Scott’s Fun Run in The Office knows how that combination will turn out.) Luca and Alberto resolve to help Guilia win, all while avoiding exposure and possible harpoons.
If you’ve seen enough Pixar movies, you probably know what to expect: Meticulous, jaw-dropping animation, a supremely talented voice cast, a Big Message for kids, and clever pop culture riffs for their parents. Luca hits all of those marks, and the result is a well-rounded dose of entertainment.
With that said, this film never aims for the greatness of Finding Nemo or the Toy Story films. Luca lacks the audacious swagger of a production that’s bolder, better, and knows it. Think about the all-out ambition of opening the first act of Wall*E with almost no dialogue, or lacing the introductory sequence of Up! with soul-crushing sadness. Those films called their shot to deep center and trotted around the bases. While Luca is a perfectly decent film, Pixar’s trademark storytelling ballsiness is notably absent.
It may not be great, but this film is definitely worth the stream. Luca is beautiful and never boring. Beyond that, I love how it deals with the notion of being different. Grownups easily dismiss a child who isn’t like the others, often with a condescending pat on the head: “It’s okay that you’re different.” As if being special was something to tolerate. But, as Mr. Rogers observed, there can be enormous power in just being you. That’s a crucial lesson to learn, and Luca imparts it with considerable skill and intelligence.
101 min. PG. Disney+.