REVIEW: ‘Luca’ Feels Like Pixar’s First Studio Ghibli Film
To say that Luca is Pixar’s best work to date feels trite given the brilliance of each film the company puts on a consistent level, which is unlike any other animation studio. I mean, last year saw the release of the beautifully gut-wrenching existential reflection that was Soul, which I absolutely adored. In the years before that, you had Coco, Inside Out, and The Incredibles sequel! If Pixar was a band, they’d probably be the Beatles during their studio years, where every single album was of note. We live in an age of Pixar films where there’s an argument to be made that each release is their best so there’s almost no point in proclaiming why Luca is the best when their next one might just surpass it.
But with that said, it’s hard not to look at Luca as one of “those” Disney classics. The spirit of the film feels like a homage to the quaint stories of old that brim with wonder and awe. When I spoke to director Enrico Casarosa, he mentioned the huge influence Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films had on his own ideations of friendship and adolescence as he was making the film. And you can truly feel that emanate from Luca; the way the film captures the innocent gaze a child casts onto its world, the nostalgia invoked by a homely summer setting, and the conflict of having to conquer one’s fears. There’s an undeniable timelessness in Miyazaki‘s and Studio Ghibli’s work and Luca bats for the same feeling by painting the perfect time with you and your childhood friends. There’s poignancy in simplicity and the film has that in earnest.
Luca, the titular lead, is voiced by Jacob Tremblay and he’s a young sea monster who spends his days shepherding fish (fisherding?) on his family’s underwater farm while daydreaming of a more exciting life. He lives with his overbearing mother, absent-minded father, and carefree grandma. One day, his curiosity is piqued by life outside the ocean. Problem is, the surface world either means trouble or death for their kind because of fishermen hunting for sea monsters. As such, Luca spends his days cooped up under the stern rule of his mother.
This all changes when he meets a troublemaker named Alberto, voiced by Shazam star Jack Dylan Grazer, who spends his days scavenging human belongings in the surface world (sea monsters, by the way, turn into humans outside of water). The two bond over a shared dream of one day owning a Vespa, which they believe to be the most beautiful invention known to man. Alberto, being an unruly kid, forces Luca to step outside of his comfort zone as they partake in shenanigans on a nearby remote island. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with Luca’s mom.
From there on out, the story’s fabric unravels as a slice-of-life vignette across an Italian riviera. It takes place in a poor fishing village called Porto Rosso (an obvious reference to Porco Rosso). Luca and Alberto find themselves living their best days, learning the ropes of the surface world while keeping their monstrous side a secret. There, they meet a friend in Giulia, who helps them realize their dream of owning a Vespa by signing up for the local triathlon. This may all seem not exciting compared to Pixar films that have sprawling adventures into fantastical worlds but it’s in these unadorned, reserved vignettes of life where much of the film’s heart truly beats.
Stand by Me was a movie that came to mind several times while watching Luca. Not because it had a bunch of kids cursing and smoking as they hiked to see a dead body, but for how it manages to capture the kinds of friendships a lot of people have during their youth. Alberto is the Chris Chambers here; a misfit that’s dismissive, reckless, protective, but deeply woeful while Luca, of course, is Gordie Lachance; wide-eyed, naive, and full of innocence. Their friendship feels tenuous at times, strained by the surface world they dream of living in but in spite of that, there’s a real undercurrent of love. And like in the Rob Reiner classic, the characters are inevitably faced with the hard choice of taking the first steps into maturity. “Silenzio, Bruno,” a mantra about conquering your fears is one you’ll often hear in the film and it’s one that ultimately crescendos into an absolutely beautiful finale that made my eyes bawl out.
Tremblay and Grazer are phenomenal in this. They truly feel like the real-life counterparts of their characters. This was a movie that was wholly produced during COVID meaning the stars weren’t able to record in the same room as they normally would in these films. But their performances nonetheless feel so authentic and true. I don’t know if Grazer and Tremblay are good friends in real life but this movie convinces you they are. Grazer is fantastic in this and really carries that brazen vulnerability that makes Alberto such a resonant character. You can’t stand him at one point but then totally shed a tear for him later on.
The supporting characters are all so fun to watch too. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan voice the wacky sea monster parents of Luca. While they obviously play a critical emotional role in Luca’s journey, they really bring all of the laughs for a chunk of the film. Certain residents of Porto Rosso are also of note, specifically Giulia’s father Massimo and his cat Machiavelli, who feel like the most Ghibli-esque characters in the film. Even the film’s de facto bad guy/bully Ercole, while one-note at times, is entertaining to watch.
And then you have the obviously gorgeous visuals by the Pixar team. Their version of the Italian Riviera is breathtaking, albeit exaggerated to feel more like an impressionistic painting. Knowing Casarosa’s admiration for Miyazaki, I can’t help but imagine how even more spectacular this film would be as a hand-drawn film. Nonetheless, the film stands as a pure treat for the eyes and ears with its vibrant vistas and Dan Romer’s vintage-inspired Italian score.
With its big Studio Ghibli energy and old-fashioned tale of friendship and overcoming fears, Luca is a fresh kind of Pixar movie in and of itself. It may not have the existential ambition of Soul nor the superhero fun offered by the Incredibles but it has a heart unlike any other and that makes for the perfect feel-good movie to watch these days.