New to Disney+: Luca – Italian seaside coming-of-age story leans on childhood summer nostalgia and vivid visuals to pad out middling story

Luca (voiced by Jacob Trembaly) lives an idyllic but lonely life on the stunning Italian Riviera, safe but sheltered from adventure. That is until he meets new friend Alberto (voice of Jack Dylan Grazer) and they begin exploring a world they couldn’t have imagined. Life above the surface is amazing – especially if you are a sea monster disguised as a human!

The New York Times went for the title ‘Calamari by Your Name’ for its review of Pixar’s newest, Luca. Aside from being a bloody good pun, the ties between this film and 2017’s Call Me By Your Name are nuanced yet unavoidable. Both films are set in stunning Italian countryside in a dreamy past. Both focus on themes of identity and society’s expectations. And both have young male protagonists sharing a secret relationship and discovering themselves in one another.

Although Luca stops just short of a full-blown story of emotional discovery for two young gay men, the undercurrent of feeling between the meek Luca and the swarthy, self-confident Alberto goes beyond friendship. Some will criticise Pixar for pulling back from a great opportunity to bring LGBTQ+ characters front and centre on the big screen. This may be fair, but the impressive characterisation here means we get enough to add a layer of bittersweet intrigue to the story.

Although the story of Luca and Alberto’s coming-of-age is the focus, there are plenty of interesting subplots. Stuck in the middle of the boy’s topsy-turvy relationship is a rambunctious student called Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman). She becomes an influence on the impressionable Luca and counteracts the over-bearing Alberto, establishing an interesting ‘love triangle’ which helps to unfold the layers within the boys. Giulia herself is painted a little thin but still offers enough unique traits to be likeable.

Luca does fall foul of re-hashing tried-and-tested character formulas (Luca’s protective parents, voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan, are particularly familiar and dull), but all in all Luca‘s characters are as vibrant and broad as you’d expect.

The real strength of the film is in its animation. You’d never expect a Pixar film to feel shabby, but Luca is something close to animated perfection, its location offering the perfect map for a kaleidoscope of colours. Under the waves the ocean is calm and muted, with light greens and blues showing Luca’s reserved life before he discovers the surface.

Here, rich sky blues, lush grass greens and the town’s reds, yellows and browns mingle and make little Porto Rosso seem like a true paradise. The sea, so pivotal to the story, rolls and sways so vividly that it feels like you are floating on its surface. It’s clear how former storyboard artist-turned-director Enrico Casarosa got to perfect the look of Luca after working on a slate of past Pixar classics.

The film does fall down a little in its plot. I already noted some of the character points felt rehashed from past films; so too some of the plot points. Luca’s discovery of the surface world felt forced early in the film. It’s also not really clear why his family are ardently against Luca seeing the surface when it seems like so many in their small community (including Luca’s sassy grandmother – why do all Pixar films have a sassy grandmother now?) already go there. Across the board Luca seems more preoccupied with looking good and building the relationship of Luca (Tremably) and Alberto (Grazer) than developing a truly deep plot.

Luca is like the memory of summer day long ago. It’s beautiful and imbued with a sweet wistfulness; but, like memories, nuance is often lost to serve a simpler, sentimental narrative. If this was the intention, Luca is a masterpiece. It’s likely not, so holds the film back from Pixar greatness.

When Pixar sets such a high bar, it’s hard to stand out every time. A step back compared to their most recent Soul, Luca is still sweet, funny, and nostalgic. A crowd pleaser. 7/10.

Check out Luca for yourself on Disney+!

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