Animation studio Pixar has a large bag of hit movies. It has been around long enough now that even with a canon that contains tales such as superhero families; toys that come to life; talking cars; and the balance of anthropomorphic emotional states, it takes something deliberately different to really stand out. Without fuss then, Luca stands apart from the recent slew of one-off tearjerkers (Soul, Inside Out, Coco, Onward) or ‘more of the same’ sequels by virtue of being gloriously old fashioned.
Taking cues from the expressiveness of early Hayao Miyazaki work (with a liberal sprinkling of the aesthetic of Porco Rosso in particular), Luca is a gentle and romanticised coming of age story set on the Italian Riviera during the 50s to 60s. Luca, a young sea monster, is enamoured with the idea of visiting the surface and the land of the humans. His parents are terrified that humans would hunt them if they were to venture to the local fishing town of Portorosso, but when he bumps into fellow sea monster Alberto, who lives in an abandoned lighthouse for fun, he decides to take the (anti)plunge.
The core elements are all very familiar for Pixar of course. A character longs for something they can’t have and overcomes adversity along the way, learning something about themselves. Yet as mentioned earlier most of Pixar’s recent output has been hyper-emotional or yet another sequel. Luca’s strong European localisation (complete with accents, pasta, and an obsession with Vespas) gives it a lilting low-stakes comfort. Watching Luca is like wading out into the low tide and letting the inexplicably soothing beach atmosphere fill you up like a Mediterranean hug.
Luca and Alberto take on human form the moment they are dry, but also revert to their sea monster appearance whenever they get wet. The fear that, if others discover what is inside of you, people will reject who you desperately want to be is universal enough; you could remove the ‘sea monster’ element of the story and replace it with anything else (see any other Pixar movie). Yet this makes for good fun with the plot and animation as the pair befriend 13-year-old Giulia, a young girl determined to defeat the supercilious Ercole Visconti in the annual Portorosso Cup, but find their own friendship and fears tested as a result.
That isn’t to say there are no emotional stakes. Luca still lands a few blows to the heart, as any good story should. But these are the salty sea spray in your face that is part and parcel of letting the restorative ebb and flow of the tide wash over you. The combination of softly beautiful imagery, a soundtrack overflowing with Italian compositions, and heavily accented characters unafraid to roll a consonant as required, together paint a movie that nails the mood of a place. As Coco emotionally captured Mexico through the lens of death, Luca stretches its arms out to bask in the Mediterranean love of simple things, and invites you to do the same.
Words by Mike Record