Dir. Enrico Casarosa. Starring Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman
Spoilers ahead for people who care, but if you’ve seen a movie with children in it before I’m not sure what you think you’d be ruining for yourself.
In its favor, Luca is the most visually attractive Pixar film since Coco, and this despite the presence of unattractive or prosaic characters. An Italian setting in a non-Italian movie is usually a pretty solid bet, one that can raise the ceiling for an otherwise basically anonymous picture like Under the Tuscan Sun or Call Me by Your Name. The same is true for Luca, in which everyone except the three principals—sea monsters Luca (Tremblay) and Alberto (Grazer) and human Giulia (Berman)—is less handsome than Michael Stuhlbarg. (The sea monsters themselves feel like a design failure which the movie never has a good answer for. The plantlike hair feels like the one guiding idea anyone had for them, and it’s not a particularly interesting one. No wonder they tend to spend so much of their time as people, who are at least recognizably unattractive or squishy in ways we’ve seen people look that way before.) Even the kids are sort of aggressively cartoony, bulbous in that traditionally Pixar way, so much so that Luca and Alberto sometimes look more like they escaped from an Aardman movie. Something about Luca’s button nose and Alberto’s conic coif make them seem like they aren’t so far away from Wallace’s features or the lush beard of the Pirate Captain.
Thus we rely on coastal Italy to provide beauty, and it delivers a rich harvest. The water is not terribly realistic in Luca, which is the canary of photorealistic animation, but it more than makes up for it by seeming cool and pleasant. Landscapes are lush with green. There’s one shot where Luca and Alberto look from their little island hideaway to the site of a town they don’t yet know the name of, and that confluence of cool colors and the way that town shines in the sun makes the boys’ wanderlust entirely comprehensible. The little town of Portorosso is loveliest of all, with buildings in yellow and orange and streets in light brown stone. When a rainstorm falls on the town in a climactic moment, the whole place becomes a muted blue underlined with shale, which is just as appealing in its own way; even the underwater sequences, which are fairly limited, are not so dark and gloomy. Part Cinema Paradiso and part Travel Channel episode, Luca is a pretty movie, and that prettiness is what works best about it.
Luca becomes friends with Alberto, who is slightly dangerous in that he has no regard for his own physical well-being, and after some hide-and-seek with his parents, his mother (Maya Rudolph) eventually tells him that he’s going to go live with his “see-through uncle” (an unexpected Sacha Baron Cohen) for a few months. Luca objects, runs off to be with his adventuresome new buddy and the possibility of novelty on land, and after a few sequences introducing Portorosso the film more or less stalls out. It’s not a Pixar problem so much as it’s a “children reaching for independence in a movie” problem. The types here are stale in the extreme. Luca is bright and retiring, easily led into mischief but filled with responsibility. Alberto is much too confident because it’s a front for hiding the pain of his dad abandoning him. Giulia is a spunky loner out to prove herself to the town where she summers and especially its teenage bully, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). Would you believe that Luca finally does something brave and stands up for his friends in their moments of need? That Alberto proves he cares about Luca by helping him get what he wants, even if it means letting him go? That Giulia is connective tissue for the plot and that Ercole is finally brought low? And (just to clean everything up in one go) that a boy and his overprotective mother can reaffirm their love for one another when he repeats something she said to him verbatim? I don’t object to any of these things happening, really, but I object to the way that none of them happen with any more interest or nuance than how I’ve described them.
I struggle to understand how Casarosa was going to make us invested in these characters. Luca is not all that funny, which is too bad; I guess there’s a kind of slapstick joy in Luca’s parents dumping water on every kid in Portorosso to see if he’s theirs, but laughs are hard to find. (A suspicious and mustachioed cat who does not trust Luca or Alberto made me laugh, but speaking as the world’s easiest mark for cat-related humor, I’m not in a position to judge how well that thread is integrated into the film.) There’s no overarching sense of desperation that might make us pity them, and the stakes are fairly low. I can’t help but think all along that the assumption was something along the lines of “Well, we cared about Luca when he was Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous and we cared about Alberto when he was River Phoenix in Stand by Me, so why shouldn’t we care about them when they’re Luca and Alberto in Luca?” It would be a cynical calculation if that kind of thinking dominated the process, but what I’m sure the actual process was—presumably something like “They’ll care about Luca and Alberto because we’ll make them care through their profound humanity and innocence”—doesn’t reflect more positively on the filmmakers.
Luca and Alberto spend most of the movie trying to hide their identity as sea monsters from the people of Portorosso (ovviamente). When they get wet, their actual skin colors start to show through. Luca turns a pale green, Alberto turns purple, and when they are fully submerged or soaked, their fishier features shine through. In one sequence, after Luca and Alberto fight, Alberto gets all the way wet in front of Giulia, and Luca betrays his friend by pretending that he is not a sea monster himself. It’s the closest this movie gets to a truly emotional moment, because Luca pointing the finger at Alberto and shouting “Sea monster!” is a decisively grimy thing to do. The moment doesn’t really come off, though, because it takes two to tango. Alberto sending a dirty look back in Luca’s direction is fine, as far as that kind of thing goes, but the film has never demanded that we believe the two of them are that close. This scene, where you know what you’re supposed to feel but can’t actually feel it, is representative of what makes this film falter. This scene only works if you believe the two of them are meant to be close, that their boyhood japes and fantastic Vespa dreams are the foundation for a fast friendship which can be busted up but never razed. (More evidence arrives later in the picture, when Alberto tries to protect Luca’s secret identity at risk to his own safety, when the two of them embrace tearfully at the train which will take Luca away, etc.)
Yet the film hasn’t really shown that they care about each other to that extent so much as it’s shown that they need each other until they can trade up. All you have to do is look at the ending where the two have separated to see that this is a more coherent reading of the film’s events. Luca is lonely and needs an outlet for his curiosity. He meets Alberto, whose devil-may-care attitude appeals to him, goes to Portorosso, and then more importantly meets Giulia and decides to go to school with her. Alberto is bereaved and needs to feel like he has some control over his life. He meets Luca, who is dying for someone to tell him what to do, goes to Portorosso, and then more importantly meets Giulia’s father (Marco Barricelli), who gives him the structure and affection that the fatherless boy has been craving. That tearful goodbye at the train station where Alberto runs after the train and then finally shouts his support of Luca while Luca looks back wistfully is meant to make us feel something because, one would think, these two are such close friends. They’ll miss each other, I’d guess, but their friendship feels disposable because it is disposable. A person who needs to get to a job ten miles distant each day could use a bike to get there, but s/he’ll trade that bike in for a hatchback sedan the first chance s/he gets. If Luca came to this conclusion on its own, I think it’d be worth praising the film for its maturity and sense of distance. That the film comes to this conclusion accidentally while asking us to get tearful about its predictable structure makes it rather less praiseworthy.