A pleasant if predictable fable about acceptance and diversity, Luca is a lesser effort from Pixar Animation Studios, which still places it above most animated feature films. It’s full of lovely animation and appealing characters, in a well-realized setting that draws from both mythology and history. For its target kid audience, Luca is perfectly effective, although adults may be disappointed in the lack of thematic depth that marks Pixar’s best work (including last year’s Soul).
The title character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is what humans would call a sea monster, although he and his family are far from monstrous. Luca lives with his stern, overprotective mom Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and his bumbling dad Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) in the waters surrounding the picturesque Italian town of Portorosso. He lives a simple life of herding sheep-like fish and spending time with his family, but he’s fascinated by the mysterious wonders of the surface world.
In a plot development that seems a little too convenient (and raises questions about why the sea monsters fear interacting with humans so much), Luca learns that any sea monster can transform into a human merely by stepping out of the water. He befriends a bold sea monster kid named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who spends most of his time on land and boasts about his (generally inaccurate) knowledge of humans. When Luca’s parents discover that he’s been sneaking off to the surface, they threaten to send him to live in “the deep” with his weird uncle (Sacha Baron Cohen), so he runs away with Alberto to Portorosso.
There, Luca and Alberto befriend a human girl, Giulia (Emma Berman), who’s obsessed with winning an annual town race and defeating local bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). Luca and Alberto attempt to fit in with humans while hiding their true nature (even a slight amount of water can cause them to partially change forms), and Luca’s parents brave the surface world to search for their son.
Both the human townspeople who fear sea monsters and the sea monsters who fear humans will eventually learn tolerance and understanding, Luca and Alberto will help Giulia stand up for herself, and the friendship among the three main kids will be tested and emerge stronger in the end. The plot about an undersea creature yearning to live among humans recalls Disney animated classic The Little Mermaid, but since it’s so easy for the sea monsters to shift between forms, there’s no similar sacrifice made for Luca to pursue his dreams, and the movie doesn’t really have a villain. Ercole is more of a buffoon than a menace, and Luca’s parents are misguided and well-meaning rather than malicious.
So the stakes are fairly low, even if the climactic race is still fast-paced and exciting. Luca mostly coasts on its likable characters and pretty scenery, and Italian director and co-writer Enrico Casarosa (who previously helmed Pixar short La Luna) clearly has affection for his homeland’s culture and its classic cinema. More than any other Pixar movie, Luca feels like a leisurely set-up for an eventual TV series, and the ending provides plenty of possibilities for further interactions between humans and sea monsters (the end credits feature a series of still images that are essentially teasers for future episodes).
The humor is gentle and simplistic (although Baron Cohen provides a few amusingly odd moments as the deep-sea uncle), and the visuals are bright and colorful. Kids will likely be delighted, and the story moves briskly enough that they probably won’t be bored. It’s upbeat and fun, even if there isn’t much below the surface.