Has Pixar lost a little of its lustre? The dumping of its latest animation straight onto the basic bit of Disney+ – ie not even the premium part you have to pay extra for, let alone cinemas – feels like a fall from grace. After all, this is the studio that released Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 in the space of four – FOUR – years, winning Oscars for all of them. Next to that gold run, this Italy-set offering and its immediate predecessors, Onward and Soul, makes up a slightly underwhelming trifecta.
If the release strategy suggests a lack of faith from the big bosses at Disney, sad to say it’s probably justified. Charming but slight, Luca definitely isn’t Pixar firing on all cylinders. The studio’s trademark daring, pin sharp sight gags, and big ideas are missing from a fishy coming-of-age yarn that’s a little damp around the edges.
There are saving graces. The animation sparkles, as always, catching the sunlight on the Mediterranean and the foam of the surf on the beach in gorgeous detail. The Italian Riviera setting brings azure-skied, sea-sprayed freshness to Pixar’s first European outing since 2012’s Brave. The characters are very likeable (and have universally great hair), while warmth radiates from its simple story of friendship, big dreams and new beginnings. And there’s a lot of delicious-looking pasta.
Most of all there are scooters – in particular, Vespas – and they take an unexpectedly central role. Like Roman Holiday (look out for its poster in one of Pixar’s trademark Easter eggs), Luca goes truly starry-eyed for the Italian style icon.
The plot follows young, purple-hued sea monster Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay). He discovers the Vespa’s joys after meeting fellow fish critter, and scooter fanatic, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) beneath the waters outside the sea-monster-hating, harpoon-wielding fishing village of Portorosso. He also learns, much to his anxious parents’ (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) dismay, that he’ll transform into a human once he sets foot on dry land. A splash of water will transform him back. Peril awaits under every leaking tap.
Soon, Luca and Alberto are in Portorosso: one dreaming of school, the other of escape and adventure aboard a Vespa (seriously, it’s hard to overstate how many Vespa references there are). Enter red-haired local girl Giulia (Emma Berman) eager for help to win the town’s annual Portorosso Cup triathlon (swim, pasta, cycle – it’s sadistic) against a local scooter-riding bully.
The film’s Italianness is sincerely felt, right down to the ‘Pixar presenta’ title card and a soundtrack that boasts Rita Pavone, Edoardo Bennato and Puccini. In one soaring sequence through the clouds above Rome, director Enrico Casaros pays tribute to Da Vinci’s aeroplane and Collodi’s Pinocchio. And alongside Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio is an obvious reference point in Luca’s quest to go to school like a real boy. The brush strokes are broader elsewhere in a movie that has characters saying things like: ‘Mamma mia! Please, a-no more revving!’ and ‘That’s a-more like it!’ in between spoonfuls of gelato.
Casaros also made the very lovely Pixar short, La Luna, and reprises its gentle character design for the humans here. The fish beasts aren’t as appealing, although the ugliest of them all, Luca’s grotesque angler fish uncle, is arguably the standout character in the entire film. You will come away wanting more of this translucent, deep-dwelling, lantern-headed rogue.
But what Luca most conspicuously lacks is Pixar’s penchant for throwing up a big tent for all ages. There’s less for grown-ups in the studio’s youngest-skewing effort since the Cars franchise. The snoozy summery vibe will suit anyone looking for undemanding viewing for their little ones. With Pixar, though, you always come expecting more.
Available to stream on Disney+ worldwide Fri Jun 18.