2021 | PG | starring voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Sacha Baron Cohen | directed by Enrico Casarosa | 1 hr 35 mins |

One of the reasons the Pixar Animation Studio has been one of the best storytelling incubators on the planet over the past 2 decades is that it genuinely seems to care about the rich cultural history of it’s characters. While the Disney side of the house treats the often repeated Hollywood buzzword of Diversity as a cynical and calculated box-checking exercise, Pixar movies are deep dives into cultures, locations, traditions and histories that we don’t often see represented in movies. Coco isn’t good because it’s lead is Hispanic, Soul isn’t good because it’s lead is black and Brave isn’t good because it’s hero is a woman – all 3 of these movies explore culture and how their characters relate to them from the Day of the Dead celebration to the beauty of soul music to gallic traditions. And the list goes on, from the love of French cooking in Ratatouille to the Route 66 middle-American nostalgia of Cars. That’s where Luca comes up as a disappointment. It’s a shallow dive into life of an Italian fishing village that would have passed for a Dreamworks movie but needs several more passes at the script to stand out in the Pixar library.

Off the coast of the Italian Riveran fishing village Portorosso, legend has it sea monsters lurk. Those monsters include the Paguro family, son Luca (perennial child Jacob Tremblay), father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) and mother Daniela (…ugh… May Rudolph, again). As these movies tend to go, in the sea monster world, legend tells of killer humans on the surface and cautions any child to go nearby. On day Luca meets adventurous monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer, Shazam, It) who has a Little Mermaid stash of human trinkets and prefers to be where the people are and coaxes Luca into the human village with dreams of running away on a Vespa.

With another Monsters Inc, monsters-are-afraid-of-us premise twist, starting a lot like Finding Nemo with overly protective parents trying to prevent Luca from exploring, Luca feels like a hodgepodge of family film tropes, ideas that ultimately don’t come into focus and an advertisement for Vespa. The sea monsters live in shallow water very, very close to the shoreline, which makes their rare interaction with humans kind of silly, but the movie has a super-cool plot device that finds the sea monsters smoothly transitioning into human form out of the water, and back as they touch any water. The transition is beautifully animated and the movie has a little fun with it. Everything about the movie is beautifully animated down to the Italian village and it’s Vespa fantasy sequences (yep).

Luca is a friendship story at core, but the characters are cliches and the story lacks stakes. It’s biggest issue is a huge pacing flag that sends the movie wandering around in search of the rest of the plot dead in the middle of the film. The world building in the first act is fun and the 3rd act build to a triathlon is fun, but the middle section of Luca and Alberto integrating into the Italian family, meeting Giulia, a girl who tries to win the triathlon every year and her seafood chef father, and dodging Luca’s parents, grinds the film to a stop. I wanted to immerse into the town a little more. I wanted higher stakes. Maybe a monster hunter arrives and tries to capture the sea monsters (though this was already so well done in Missing Link). Maybe the film’s 3rd act threat of a rain storm revealing the boys true form kicks off an elaborate set piece where they have to move from house to house in doors. Maybe the humans discover them and threaten to go into the sea themselves and attack their home. Give me something to raise the stakes here.

Now granted, a lot of Pixar movies still become compelling with relatively low stakes or non-traditional antagonists (think Ratatouille), but in Luca it never even feels like Luca and Roberto will actually leave their family and drive off in a Vespa. Luca might be the most Hayao Miyazaki-inspired film the studio has made, with it’s focus to a small European town, low stakes and magic under the human world, but that’s another comparison that doesn’t flatter the film as it’s never as rich, magical or lived-in as a Miyazaki movie.