On Screen: Beautifully Animated Luca Falls Short of Breaking the Pixar Mold

Digital illustration by Reid Alexander.

Welcome back to On Screen, The Augur Bit’s column all about television and film. For my first review of the new school year, I’ll discuss the newest Pixar movie, Luca.

The story revolves around two humanoid sea monsters, Luca and Alberto, a pair of friends who try to spend time above the surface and blend in as humans in Italy. During their time out of the water—when their turquoise skin gives way to a human appearance—Luca and Alberto befriend a human named Giulia, voiced by Emma Berman in her first appearance on the big screen. 

Released this June, the movie is Enrico Casarosa’s feature-film directorial debut. The animated movie stars young actors Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer voicing Luca and Alberto. Both Tremblay and Grazer give good performances and are perfect fits for their respective roles. Their acting humanizes the strange-looking creatures they play. 

Luca is a fun, feel-good movie with some especially impressive technical elements. The animation is top-notch, particularly in some great sequences such as when Luca and Alberto transform from sea monsters into humans. The detail and originality of the sequences are an exciting touch from Pixar, and they’re especially impressive when compared to the studio’s earlier work—for example, Toy Story

Toy Story, like Luca, has an imaginative plot and received critical acclaim (both movies were rated above 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). But where Luca stands out is in its incredibly detailed animation, which is miles ahead of Toy Story, in terms of both its crispness and resemblance to reality. Toy Story remains a personal favorite, but Luca marks how far Pixar has come since then. 

Luca also often turns to the interesting story technique of dream sequences that highlight the main characters’ childlike wonder. I was pleasantly surprised by how the technique helped me understand the characters more deeply by bringing me into their psyches, since many films use dream sequences only as a punchline to a joke. 

In addition to the impressive animation and storytelling, Luca is well paced. The movie follows the three-act story structure closely to great success. Every plot point mattered, and every plot point was entertaining. I never felt bored, and I was never given time to tune out of the movie. My time watching Luca flew by, which is an impressive feat, as I usually find at least some point in most Pixar movies where I’m bored. 

Though I liked Luca’s methods of storytelling, the movie often plays things too safe. I could guess every plot point before it happened, because it felt like the movie closely followed the classic Pixar formula: One central character embarks on a hero’s journey and, despite facing obstacles, comes out of the movie unscathed. The recognizable structure made the movie seem at points lacking in personality and originality. I would have loved for this film to break the cookie cutter mold of other Pixar films, but alas, it did not. 

Most Pixar movies—which are targeted towards children—end very neatly and happily. I would have liked it if Luca broke that mold by offering a more nuanced and less clear-cut ending. But for a movie made for kids, maybe it is the right decision to stick to the tried-and-true formula. The simple narrative is easier for children to follow, and a high school student might not be the kind of viewer Pixar had in mind while making this film. 

Despite those shortcomings, the movie was still an exciting adventure with some sweet moments. I felt connected to the characters and their journeys and was invested in them throughout the movie. Even at its worst points, at its least exciting moments, Luca was still, at the very least, an enjoyable movie to look at because of its stellar animation. If the movie had only pushed the envelope a little bit more, I would have loved it. 

My Rating: 7/10

If you like this movie, you should watch: Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo