Different might the defining feature of Pixar animation studio, or at least the image they’d like to portray. As ubiquitous as the 3D style they pioneered has become, Pixar was really the trailblazer. Self described weirdos have long been attracted to the studio for the opportunity to tell idiosyncratic stories most other places wouldn’t touch. While other places were pumping out formulaic princess musicals, Pixar was making kids and adults alike cry over the friendship of two hunks of plastic and the exploits of a flea circus. Even as the Pixar tearjerker turned into its own template and subpar sequels rolled out, that reputation for being different persisted.
In so many ways Luca, the first feature by director Enrico Casarosa, continues in the traditional Pixar mold while also epitomizing the studio’s spirit. A story of outsiders, the film follows the titular Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a trepidatious sea monster child desperate to see the world beyond the sea. He gets his chance when he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a slightly older sea monster, who has been living on the surface world for some time.
Never is it explained why, but the boys take a human form when dry, allowing them to navigate the world of humans freely. That’s fortunate because the town they find themselves in, Porto Rosso — very likely a nod to Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso — is notorious for their hatred of sea monsters. Still, the danger their identities put them in is a risk worth taking as Porto Rosso and it’s annual triathalon is Luca and Alberto’s best bet to get their hands (fins?) on a Vespa scooter that will finally grant the pair the freedom they’ve so long desired.
If those stakes sound a little small for a studio that most recently released a movie about the inner workings of death, they are. Luca is drastically different in scope from not just Pixar films, it’s a departure from the adventure heavy animation being made by anyone outside of Ghibli and it’s wonderful. Unlike other Pixar buddy movies the plot in Luca is shockingly thin and of mostly secondary concern.
More-so than any recent animation, Luca is just a vibe. Sure there’s an exaggerated villain — although he’s really more of a cartoonish annoyance than a real threat — and there is a simmering risk of death throughout, but those take a backseat to the lush Italian scenery and the budding friendship at the heart of the film. Those are the stars and Casarosa lets them shine. He has faith that the kids watching at home will connect with these characters discovering the wider world and wont need big action or sprawling adventure. Instead the set pieces are playful moments between friends and dream sequences depicting a world as ever expansive as Luca’s imagination.
Luca is more than just a different kind of movie though, it’s a movie explicitly about being different. As obnoxious as the town bully Ercole (played by Italian comedian Saverio Raimondo) is, the real danger faced by Luca and Alberto is the town finding out their fishy secret. That Vespa they so desperately want is really about the freedom it represents from their current state of feeling trapped or unwanted.
Now might be a good time to address the Call Me By Your Name of it all. Comparisons online have been swirling since the very first trailers dropped, but the connections are mostly surface level. The kids portrayed in Luca probably skew a bit young to truly ascribe sexuality onto them (and obviously the corporate monolith behind the film has no desire to.) Still, the jealous glances thrown by Alberto certainly could imply that their budding friendship may be something a more. Whether or not that subtext is intentional, the idea of two closeted sea monsters navigating a broader public that hates them certainly feels allegorical. And it is Pride Month, just sayin.
Regardless of it you read Luca as a specific LGBTQ metaphor or simply a more generalized tale of outcasts and underdogs, the message is powerful. It’s a movie that puts acceptance and empathy at the forefront, positing that differences are what make us stronger and that we all aspire for acceptance and happiness. Boiled down to it’s simplest point, Luca shows two groups at odds due to their ignorance of one another coming together. Pretty profound for Pixar’s breeziest movie in years.
Undoubtedly Luca is a deviation from the classic Pixar formula — or at the very least an alteration to their traditional weepy alchemy — but in a way it’s the just the latest in an emerging trend for the studio. Since ditching Chief Creative Officer John Lassiter in 2018, the studio has put out four films, three based on original concepts. Under Pete Docter, Pixar has been just as willing to produce a cookie cutter fantasy adventure as an existential meditation on the afterlife.
These radically different films have come from different creatives too. Of the four most recent films, three have been directed or co-directed by someone making their feature debut, including Pixar’s first credited Black director, Kemp Powers. That diversification will only continue into next year when Domee Shi’s (Bao) Turning Red releases. It has truly been an incredible resurgence for a studio that just four years ago was mired in a stretch of mediocre sequels and uninspired originals.
Luca embodies the newfound spirit of Pixar in tone and spirit. Enrico Casarosa was allowed to make his chill Italian hangout movie at the same place Josh Cooley was able to completely rework Woody’s ethos in Toy Story 4. Rather than chasing broad appeal and hiding from stories that the previous regime might have deemed too alienating, Pixar is letting it’s creatives create and trusting audiences to get it. As one of the few studios that consistently turns out heady original content for kids and adults alike, this recent run has been incredibly encouraging. For the first time in a long time Pixar is embracing different. 8/10