How Luca marked a turning point for Pixar

Pixar's Luca
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With Enrico Casarosa’s Luca, Pixar abandoned its “existential crisis” model, and it’s all the better for it. 

There was a time not so long ago when Pixar films made me feel an equal mixture of excitement and dread. Not because I worried about their quality, but because I knew they’d manage to bring me to tears at some point.  From Toy Story, to Up, and the more recent Soul and Onward, these animated films have more often than not dealt with heavy topics of death, loss, grief, and regret in a way that has moved children and adults alike.


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But then Luca happened. An underrated film of 2021 (partially because of its streaming release) it came as a breath of fresh air. A simple but sweet tale of two boys finding their place in the world, for once Pixar had made a film that didn’t aim to fill us with existential dread.

Luca, alongside the recently released Turning Red, makes up a duo of coming-of-age films led by young protagonists. This is a key part of what makes them different to the studio’s previous output. After being made to contemplate the meaning of life by Soul and sobbing through the opening ten minutes of Up, the simplicity of Luca and its low stakes narrative came as a pleasant surprise.

Our protagonist, Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a sea monster living with his protective family. The ocean is beautiful, but he’s plagued by questions of what lies on the surface. He’s lured in by the promise of the unknown. When he runs away, he meets a fellow sea monster in disguise, Alberto, who shows him the ropes of pretending to be human (albeit not very successfully). Together they form dreams of riding into the sunset on a gleaming new Vespa, and travel to the seaside town of Porto Rosso to make their dreams come true.

The entire plot of the film hinges on the outcome of a race, with Luca and Alberto wanting to use the prize money to buy their precious ticket to freedom. While it may seem overly simplistic compared to its deeply thoughtful predecessors, that simplicity belies a film that tackles similarly deep and emotional topics, but from a childlike perspective. Although Luca and Alberto don’t have a lifetime of regrets weighing on them (like Joe, or Carl) they do a lot of thinking, and dreaming, about the future. They’re in the process of finding themselves and deciding what to do with their lives. Their secret sea monster identities also make this a heartwarming tale of acceptance.

Luca and Alberto in the town of Porto Rosso in Luca (2021)

Being children is what makes the difference. Instead of looking back and thinking of the past, our heroes are full of energy and hope for the future. Instead of their inner thoughts being deep and reflective, they are imaginative dreams where they can fly into the clouds on a Vespa, and where the stars are floating, glowing fish. The entirety of Luca is filled with childlike wonder and imagination, to the extent that it reminds us of what it was like to be a child.

It’s the simple plot and leisurely pace that allows the film to explore that experience. Before the duo even reach Porto Rosso, there’s a fairly lengthy part of the movie that establishes their newfound friendship. More importantly, it allows itself to divert away from pure plot progression to just show us kids having fun. They build a makeshift bike to ride around on and dive into the ocean together. Luca has similar moments of fun with Giulia, who  sparks his imagination with tales of the solar system and flying contraptions. His love of learning is a huge part of what makes him, and the film, so endearing.

It’s rare now to see a mainstream film from a renowned studio that’s willing to slow things right down and just allow us to get to know the characters, and have fun with them.

There’s also plenty of time to take in the scenery, which adds to Luca's charm. Pixar films have always been a feast for the eyes, but this one takes that to a whole new level – and a lot of that’s down to the colour palette. The movie is a rainbow of colour, with the vivid blue of the sea mirrored by the sky, and the plants are impossibly green. Even Porto Rosso, which has some more muted hues, is painted in all of the primary colours. If you’re inside on a rainy day, watching this film would make it feel like you’re outside in the sun. And again, the fact that the movie takes its time means that you can just sit back and enjoy it.

It proves that a great animated film doesn’t hinge on a constantly moving plot, or a consistent sense of threat. It establishes, too, that a Pixar film doesn’t always have to be thematically dark or overly thoughtful to be a success. With Luca the studio took a risk on a low stakes narrative and tapped into the joy and excitement of being a child, and it’s all the better for it.

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