Luca (2021)

I am smitten with Luca even though it’s a bit rough around the edges and takes some time to get going. It lacks a coherent point for the whole first act. The story starts as a half-hearted two-worlds-not-that-different parable, and also an underdeveloped country-kid-wants-more story.

It’s only after Luca runs off with fellow sea monster Alberto that the movie crystallizes into its charming self — a story of intimate, life-changing friendship in a tantalizing new world with all the affirming but also challenging implications therein.

Baked into the premise is the potential that this close friendship has romantic self-discovery elements too. The movie comes about as close as possible to making the queerness of Luca and Alberto the text of the movie without actually doing so. Perhaps this is cowardly — just let the boys love each other if that’s the story you want to tell! — but I didn’t mind the ambiguity. Sometimes there’s a blurry line between affection and attraction, and it felt honest here.

The visuals of the movie are hugely inviting. The cartoonish character designs feel hand-crafted and expressive, not garish or uncanny. I understand that tastes vary, and the “bean mouth” or “Cal Arts” aesthetic is divisive, especially rendered in CGI, but the movie is so evocative with its faces and character animation that I think the style is a total triumph.

What I really love about Luca is its easygoing, midcentury Italian summer vibe, from the colors to the music to the fashion, etc. I would watch a whole series around these kids experiencing a summer in Portorosso, devouring every experience with wonder.

This is not a flawless movie, and it’s certainly possible I’ll come down harsher in future viewings once the emotional swoon has worn off. Ercole is not only an unpleasant villain but an uninteresting one. And the movie’s plot hinges on esoteric rules about teams in a triathlon.

Worst of all, Luca himself is a bit of a blank slate. Unlike all of Pixar’s truly great protagonists, his motivations are pretty vague for most of the runtime. When he finally expresses his own desires late in the film — to go to school and learn about the world — it feels less like the natural conclusion of an arc and more like something to fill up narrative space to get us to the touching finale.

Nonetheless, I found Luca to be quite effective overall. It has some really powerful, tear-jerking moments in its final act especially. It’s a film whose warmth and generosity beg you to forgive its more rickety parts. And I’m happy to oblige.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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