Sleeping with the Fishes – Luca

As I mentioned in the July edition of TFINYW, this has been a relatively weak year for animation so far. We’ve got one genuine hit in The Mitchells vs. the Machines and a passable-to-decent Disney outing in Raya and the Last Dragon, which has gorgeous artwork but a very subpar script. Meanwhile, we’ve had to put up with another SpongeBob movie, a Spirit spinoff that’s just an excuse to sell dolls, and an Aladdin rip-off in the form of Wish Dragon. Looking forward, the prospects are also not great, as we get a Boss Baby sequel later this week, and over the course of the rest of the year we’ve got potentially cringeworthy sequels upcoming for Sing, The Addams Family, and Hotel Transylvania, as well as a PAW Patrol movie. Really, the only promising entries left for the year are Ron’s Gone Wrong coming out in October, and Disney’s 60th animated film, Encanto, set for November.

That means that to get us through the summer, the only real animated film worth considering is Luca, the 24th film released by Pixar. Coming on the heels of last year’s Luxo twofer, and knowing we’ll get two more entries in 2022 (Turning Red and Lightyear, currently scheduled for March and July, respectively), it’s tempting to just lean on Luca as cinematic comfort food in the middle of our national recovery.

But the question remains, especially given what we can most recently compare it to, is this film closer to Onward or Soul? One’s a well-meaning but middling bit of escapism, while the other is a pantheon film that makes us reexamine our own humanity through Pixar’s profoundly creative lens. So which is it? Well, Disney kind of already gave us the answer in advance back in March, when the film’s theatrical release was cancelled in favor of a streaming-only debut on Disney+, and without having to pay a premium like they did for the Mulan remake and Cruella.

That sort of tells you all you need. They can say it’s because of the pandemic all they want, but Disney all but admitted that they didn’t have confidence in the movie to draw in audiences the way their better films would. And having seen it, I have to agree. The film’s overall fairly harmless, and there’s still that amazing animation quality that makes Pixar what it is, but beyond that, this is a fairly weightless entry, with no real stakes or plot, no meaningful questions about life or emotion, and no memorable characters. I’d wager it’s still better than anything DreamWorks has shit out in the last decade that didn’t have to do with training dragons, but that’s not saying much.

Set along the coast of Italy and its waters, Luca follows a summer in the life of the titular 13-year-old sea monster voiced by Jacob Tremblay. He’s part of an overprotective family (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan respectively voice his parents) that herds “goatfish,” which is just dumb. The entire first act is basically a rip-off of The Little Mermaid (potentially to soften the blow when the upcoming live action remake inevitably sucks ass and pisses us all off again), with Luca longing to discover life on the surface. His parents try to scare him into remaining “under the sea,” so to speak, but Luca keeps collecting the detritus that boaters and fishermen lose to the waves. When he finds a discarded Victrola, my immediate thought was, “You want thingamabobs? I’ve got 20!” It really is that blatant.

And if I’m being perfectly honest, the animation of these opening scenes feels a little phoned in. Luca’s character design is incredible, with layered colors and really cool, flowing kelp hair. But everything else is just kind of, well, lame. The water effects don’t look nearly as convincing as Finding Nemo or even The Good Dinosaur, the lighting looks completely off, and for some ungodly reason, Sacha Baron Cohen voices an uncle that’s apparently part lanternfish and loves the taste of whale carcass. It’s seriously more off-putting than the actual lanternfish that chased Dory and Marlin around.

Luca is forced into adventure when he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer of Shazam! and the It movies), another sea monster who prefers to live on the surface, watching over a ruined hideaway while his dad is “out of town,” so you know where that’s going. As it turns out, when sea monsters leave the water, they transform into humans by drying off.

It’s an interesting effect the first time you see it, but it raises a ton of questions that the film just completely ignores, because explaining any of this would probably force people to admit they didn’t think it through. What degree of dryness is required to transform? Why does the first transformation happen instantly, but the next one (Luca’s first intentional one) becomes a whole drawn-out sequence, and every subsequent one is paced at the whim of the scene’s required level of tension? Since the sea monsters transform back if they get wet at all, how do their gills/lungs work? Seeing Luca change in the rain is a beautiful image I’ll grant, but if he regains gills, wouldn’t he be suffocating in open air? The sea monsters also interchangeably use the terms “land monster” and “human” to describe the people on the surface, but they have no species name for themselves other than “sea monster,” which, why? Why would you just accept “monster” as part of your identity?

The second act starts off fairly inauspiciously, as Luca and Alberto’s almost co-dependent friendship devolves into the worst feature-length commercial for Vespa this side of Roman Holiday. They obsess over the tiny scooters, build replicas, and escape to the nearby town of Portorosso in the hopes of buying one so they can travel the countryside. They find their opportunity in the form of a cheap, beat up model that they can afford if they win the town’s annual “triathlon” for kids, where the running leg is substituted for eating a bowl of pasta, because, you know, Italy. In service of this uninspired runner, the movie has basically become Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Here the pair meet Giulia (Emma Burman), a plucky young girl and fish delivery rider who decides to team up with them to finally win the race. She’s the daughter of Massimo (Marco Barricelli), a fisherman and sea monster hunter who looks imposing due to his size, missing arm, and mustachioed cat, but it turns out he’s a big softie who does the best he can (he was born without a right arm rather than losing it in some form of disease or violence) and loves that his daughter is making new friends while she spends summers with him (the rest of the year she lives with her mother further inland and attends school). He’s a genuinely fun character, and a nice subversion of expectations, while Giulia fits the bill of a tomboy and is little more than an object to create discord between Luca and Alberto later on.

On the flipside, there’s our ostensible villain, Ercole Visconti, voiced by Saverio Raimondo. He’s an older boy who owns a Vespa, but more importantly, he’s a vainglorious bully who’s won the race several years in a row, to the point where he’s clearly too old to compete but no one stops him. He has no actual menace due to his scrawny physique, and is instead just an annoyance who dishes out bad one-liners and the script treats him as if he’s an actual threat. When your big baddie is a neutered Biff Tannen, you know there’s basically no point to any of this.

Some of the antics definitely have their moments, like winning over the cat, or Luca discovering astronomy, leading to a very colorful sequence of space fish reminiscent of Over the Moon. There’s even a truly brilliant shot where Luca and Alberto sneak onto the beach underneath a dilapidated boat, passing behind an oblivious fisherman. As they walk, the fisherman’s body serves as a sort of wipe effect, as the boys’ legs are in monster form when they go behind but human when they reemerge.

But beyond that, there’s not much to recommend. Luca’s parents assuming human form to search for him basically goes nowhere. What little conflict there is in the movie is both overly predictable and incredibly forced. In one of the more insipid running bits, whenever the kids utter an exclamation, it’s some nonsense that literally translates to “Saint Cheese!” (“Santo Mozzarella!” for example) While the sea monster designs are awesome, their human forms have these weird rubbery faces and rounded teeth that look like something from Nick Park’s stop-motion workshop.

The movie isn’t actively bad, but it is relatively boring and without purpose. As a meaningless distraction for kids, it’s alright, but this is Pixar we’re talking about here. Fairly or not, they’re held to a much higher standard than other studios because they’ve been the undisputed industry leaders for more than 25 years. This is a passable movie on its merits, but it’s certainly nothing special, which in Pixar terms might as well be a failure. Yes, this still trumps just about anything from the other major studios of late, but if anyone is exempt from a grading curve, it’s Pixar. This isn’t Cars 2, but it’s nowhere near the likes of Ratatouille or Up, either.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think animation is a weak genre this year? Do you enjoy gelato? Let me know!

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