Pixar has made so many great movies that when they make one that's merely good, it almost feels like a disappointment. Case in point: Luca, a warm-hearted and pleasant film that never hits the high notes of the Toy Story series, Inside Out, or even Onward. Of course, minor Pixar is still a lot better than many of the family films that get released in any given year. Lower your expectations just a bit and Luca provides sufficient entertainment.
The title character, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, is a sea monster who lives off the coast of Italy. His mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) are perpetually worried about his tendency to wander off to parts unknown, scavenging for items dropped in the water by humans. During one of these missions, Luca meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), another sea monster who turns into a human whenever he goes onto dry land.
It turns out that Luca also has this ability. A friendship quickly develops, which leads them to venture into a nearby Italian town with the hope of earning money to buy a Vespa. They meet a local girl, Giulia (Emma Berman), as well as the town bully, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). Luca and Alberto team up with Giulia to beat Ercole at an annual triathlon that involves eating, swimming, and biking. Meanwhile, Daniela and Lorenzo realize their son has gone above the surface and come looking for him.
Luca has a lot of fun with the idea that Luca and Alberto turn back into sea monsters when wet. There are funny scenes of them panicking in the rain, trying to avoid falling out of a boat around humans, and so on. There's also a nice theme about self-confidence. Luca has too little of it, his new pal too much. Tremblay and Grazer do excellent voicework, showing how their characters learn to balance each other out. A part of that is Alberto teaching Luca how to tame the anxiety in his mind. It's a nice story addition that could benefit younger viewers dealing with their own worries.
At the same time, Pixar movies often leave you tearing up at the end, or at least leaving you with a lump in your throat. Luca doesn't go in-depth enough with its ideas to have that sort of emotional impact. Fears of Daniela and Lorenzo are mostly played for laughs, rather than for the parental terror that fueled Finding Nemo. Ercole is a generic bully, and the movie doesn't have anything particular to say on the subject of kids being cruel to one another. Not diving more into the situation between Giulia and her one-armed fisherman father seems like a missed opportunity, too.
Animation-wise, the look of the Italian town is vivid and beautiful, although scenes underwater are less breathtakingly detailed than those in Finding Nemo/Finding Dory. That's an intentional stylized choice, but we're so used to Pixar movies dazzling our eyes that it proves slightly disconcerting. As the movie goes on, more time is spent in the town, so that minor issue essentially works itself out.
Luca has enough going in its favor to entertain the family audience it's aimed at. The pervasive Italian flavor gives the movie a feel all its own, and the use of appearance-shifting sea monsters as protagonists is clever. Most of the Pixar movies are better, though, so this one isn't likely to inspire the same endless repeat viewings from children. In other words, it's good and if you like Pixar, you'll be glad you saw it. Just don't expect to be blown away.
out of four
Luca is rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.