Luca, as voiced by Jacob Tremblay in the new Pixar animated film of that name, is a perfectly ordinary pre-pubescent boy: shy, a little sheltered, but eager to explore the world that lies beyond his doorstep, even if it takes him places his hovering parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) have expressly forbidden him to go. Oh, also—like his parents, his other relatives, and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), the self-confident daredevil of a kid he meets one day on a beach on the Italian Riviera—Luca also happens to be an amphibious marine creature who transforms, when on dry land, into a human-looking, scale-and-fin-free version of himself. In the nearby fishing village where their existence has become a subject of legend, these elusive beings are demonized as “sea monsters.” Then again, the ocean dwellers refer to the human inhabitants of the village as “land monsters,” so the incomprehension and suspicion run both ways.
The first 20 minutes or so of Luca briskly establish this outlandish-sounding but actually quite simple premise: It’s a kind of preteen Splash, but with a pair of mer-boys in place of Daryl Hannah’s displaced mermaid and a young human girl, Giulia (voiced by the newcomer Emma Berman) in place of the landlubbing character played by Tom Hanks. Also, of course, because this is a kids’ movie—one more explicitly aimed at children than anything Pixar has done in a while, even if it is rated PG for a few slightly scary moments—any hint of a romantic relationship between earth- and sea-bound creatures is nowhere in sight. The closest to a love story Luca gets is the deep bond between the two boys, developed in a series of early montages that show them trying to build a Vespa scooter out of spare parts and venturing into the mysterious world above the water’s surface.
Luca and Alberto’s connection has a lyrical element that the young male friendships we see on screen seldom do. In addition to riding their DIY scooter down a steep incline into the ocean, they love to lie on the sand looking up at the stars, which, as Alberto grandly informs the impressionable Luca, are actually sardines swimming beneath the surface of a larger body of water that is the sky. It’s understandable that some early reactions to the Luca trailer compared the boys’ summer idyll on the Italian coast to the gay romance at the heart of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name—even if this movie’s director, Enrico Casarosa, has insisted that the relationships among the young characters, same-sex or otherwise, are intended to be purely platonic.
Casarosa has worked at Pixar for nearly 20 years, serving as a story artist on Ratatouille, Up, and the first two Cars movies. He directed the 2011 short La Luna, which was released in theaters paired with Brave, but Luca marks his first time directing a feature. For this movie’s animation, he has envisioned something different from the studio’s usual hyper-crisp digital style: the look here is a softer-edged cross between two-dimensional drawn animation and stop-motion, augmented by digital effects but based on simple watercolor storyboards by the director. The color palette, less saturated with primary colors than the typical Pixar film, uses aquamarine and jewel tones for the underwater segments and dusty pinks and ochres for the scenes in the hilly seaside town. Casarosa has said that the Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki was a major influence on both the movie’s look and its themes: The sea-to-land-creature transformation the boys regularly undergo recalls the dimorphic nature of Ponyo’s fish-girl heroine, while the name of the human village they frequent, Portorosso, evokes the title of the Studio Ghibli film Porco Rosso.
Once the two boys finally venture into that village, there is a trifle of a storyline to keep them there: Giulia, the oddball girl who befriends them, is determined to defeat the local bully Ercole (Italian comedian Saverio Raimondo) in the town’s annual triathlon race, where the three oddly matched events are bicycling, swimming, and downing enormous plates of pasta. Together the three kids begin training as a team, with Alberto and Luca struggling to hide their secretly fishy status. Meanwhile, Luca’s worried parents decide to take on human form to search for their missing son, while Alberto—who appears to have been all but abandoned by his own family—begins to forge a bond with Giulia’s imposing but gentle-souled fisherman father Massimo (Marco Barricelli).
Though the childhood friendship this movie honors is based on an experience the director had in the early 1980s, the time frame has been moved to some unspecified period in the ’50s or ’60s—an excuse to play some classic Italian pop on the soundtrack, along with the Ennio Morricone-esque original score by Dan Romer.
The nostalgia evoked by these musical choices is entrancing, as is the absence in the kids’ lives of any such mediating technology as cell phones or social media. But Luca’s affectionate gaze on the past also places it safely outside the contemporary world, where our relationship to the ocean, to other species, and to one another have all been profoundly affected by technology and climate change. As enjoyable as this film’s small pleasures are—stick around through the credits for an extra scene of Sacha Baron Cohen as a glow-in-the-dark fish from the ocean’s lower depths, described by Luca as “my weird see-through uncle”—there’s something almost too glossily pleasant about the tale it tells of misfit kids learning to accept their differences and form their own alternate family. There are worse things a family summer movie can be than sweet, kind, and affirming of interspecies friendship in all its forms. But after the high-concept ambition of Pixar films like Inside Out, Coco, Soul, and even Toy Story 4, Luca, for all its pictorial loveliness and standout voice work, feels slightly underwhelming. This may be a part of the reason Pixar scrapped plans to have the movie open in theaters, or to charge $29.99 for “premier access” as they did for Cruella, Mulan, and Raya and the Last Dragon; instead it will be streaming exclusively to Disney+ subscribers starting June 18. Especially if you’re watching with children, you could spend a perfectly lovely afternoon diving into Luca’s refreshing blue-green waters. But unlike the two fish-kid buddies at the movie’s center, you may not emerge from the experience transformed.
For more discussion of Luca, check out Dana Stevens’ and Karen Han’s spoiler-filled discussion of the movie.