By Courtney Thomas
In this summer blockbuster, sea monsters disguised as humans secretly enter an Italian fishing village. First two… then more. Meanwhile, young Giulia doesn’t suspect a thing.
Phrased that way, the plot of Enrico Casarosa’s Luca sounds like that of a shriek filled B-movie, but the above description couldn’t be farther from the film’s sun-soaked aesthetic.
Luca (Jacob Tremblay), the film’s protagonist, is a young sea monster who shepherds a flock of fish, but much like Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, he becomes interested in the world above when he discovers human objects that have fallen into the sea. When he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), another young sea monster who spends most of his time on an island, the two become fast friends, building scooters and dreaming of owning a Vespa. For the two, a Vespa = freedom.
Luca and Alberto are part of a scaly species of sea monster that transforms when dry. Jumping in and out of the sea, their tails disappear as they instantly develop human bodies. “The change” as they call it, is a fun piece of animation, but this involuntary reaction to water has high stakes for the boys, who must be careful not to change when in human eyesight.
When Luca’s parents (Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph), who fear the sea monster hunting humans, learn of his adventures on land, they plan to send him to the deep to stay with his anglerfish uncle (Sacha Baron Cohen). Wishing to avoid this fate, Luca and Alberto enter a human town and attempt to pass as human boys. It doesn’t help that Luca is still getting comfortable with his human legs, or that their few previous interactions with humans have led Luca and Alberto to conclude that humans say “hello” by yelling “What’s wrong with you, stupido!” but the boys find a friend in Giulia (Emma Berman), a competitive local girl bent on beating the local bully in the annual triathlon. Upon learning that the prize money could get them a second-hand Vespa, Luca and Alberto enthusiastically join her team.
The trio begins to train together and the boys help Giulia’s father with his fishing to raise money for the entry fee. The friendship deepens and Luca and Giulia discover a shared interest in astronomy. These idyllic summer moments are disrupted, however, when Luca’s distraught parents arrive to search for him (a plot twist that echoes another of Disney’s much-loved underwater films: Finding Nemo). In a humorous twist, Luca’s parents have never seen him in human form, so their method of searching for him is to dump water on every kid in town to see if they’ll change into a sea monster.
When Alberto reveals his sea monster identity to Giulia, rather than supporting him, Luca tries to distance himself in a devastating act of betrayal. But like in all kids movies, reconciliation is achieved before the story ends. The film ends happily all the way around, with the town’s acceptance of the sea monster population, a victory in the triathlon and the opportunity for Luca to attend school with Giulia in the fall.
Luca is a charming, relatively simple story about friendship and no doubt deserves to be a popular summer movie, but it isn’t an instant classic. The bar has been set incredibly high by Pixar’s recent films, and while Luca is a solid piece of family entertainment, it isn’t as visually stunning as Coco or as philosophical and inventive as Soul. For a movie about coming out of the ocean, it stays surface-level rather than going deep. Even so, a few day-dream sequences in Luca feature stylized clouds and gleaming Vespas, further developing the film’s aesthetic, and the world-building is consistent between Luca’s underwater home and the village where the second half of the film is set. Disney and Pixar projects often feature orphaned adventurers, but Luca’s large Italian family and Giulia’s stoic father add heart and humor to the story.
The film’s central metaphor about hiding a part of one’s identity is a familiar but relatable trope of recent children’s movies. The water-activated scales of the sea monsters are reminiscent of Elsa’s attempt to hide her ice powers early in Frozen, but Luca is embedded with a much more playful, charming quality. Characters claim that the sea monsters’ lives may be in danger if they can’t blend in well enough, but the world is so bright that the threats presented by the bully’s harpoon and Giulia’s father’s knives don’t seem frightening. Best described as friendly and sweet, Luca contains little psychological darkness.
Even if it draws from familiar (and somewhat generic) plot formulas, Luca gets the pacing right. Clocking in at 1 hour and 36 minutes, it seems designed with children’s attention spans in mind, smoothly getting from one plot point to the next. The film is entertaining, and achieves its goal of delivering families a summer adventure story, even if it lacks the originality that frequently sets Pixar projects apart.