‘Luca’ is All Wet
Latest from Pixar traffics in sea monsters and Italian stereotypes
If feminists still think that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, then they haven’t seen Luca. Because what fish really need are Vespas. Like, badly. “Why do you want a Vespa?” says spunky redheaded girl Giulia (Emma Berman). “Because it will be amazing!” exclaims briny beast Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay). This enthusiastic but empty retort is the driving force behind Luca, a brightly-colored sea spray of bubbleheaded goodwill and basic anti-othering platitudes.
Luca is what the terra-firma Italian locals would call a member of the monstri marini, the fabled, mostly unseen, and therefore terrifying sea creatures that live off the Mediterranean coast of Portorosso. But he’s actually just a little kid with big dreams who gets a forbidden taste of dry land—and likes it. “The world is a dangerous place,” says his overprotective mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph), so she and her family live in ignorance and fear of what they call the “land monsters.” See? Both sides are wary! Because people hate what they don’t understand. Othering!
Directed by: Enrico Casarosa
Written by: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, David Callaham
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan
Running time: 101 min
Luca is apparently an underwater shepherd, because his day involves herding school of fish which bleat like sheep. Why do sea creatures need to herd fish? No idea. This is an odd visual joke that ends as soon as it begins and basically doesn’t pop up again as a plot point. One day Luca encounters a fellow undersea denizen named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who collects human artifacts like Ariel does in The Little Mermaid. His above-water antics horrify and beguile Luca. They also reveal that, when dry, sea-monster gills and tails disappear, ocean-tinted skin turns flesh-colored, and otherwise aquatic bodies magically transform into human ones.
Alberto teaches Luca how to walk on two legs and explains gravity by falling out of a treehouse-like nest he constructed. He also introduces Luca to the concept of a Vespa, which quickly becomes their shared obsession. Why? “Because it will be amazing!” Okay, sure. Only problem: if anyone gets them wet, even a drop of water will revert their humanoid facades back to their scaly selves.
There’s tension at home, since Luca accidentally confesses to his parents that he spent his day literally being a fish out of water. Alarmed for his safety, they threaten to send him into the deep deep sea to live with his “weird see-through uncle,” Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a bizarre cameo), who is more grotesque than funny. Luca understandably becomes a runaway. Ugo no-go, ergo Vespa.
The key to Vespa life: winning prize money from the Portorosso Cup Race, a triathlon that requires swimming, bike riding, and—wait for it—eating pasta. This movie is so Italian, by the way, that everyone is constantly eating pasta, eating gelato, riding Vespas, and saying things like “per favore” and grazie.” The two aquatic boys also think for some reason that calling humans “stupido” is acceptable ice-breaker small talk for blending in. And their human friend Giulia shows exasperation by individually invoking what I guess is the holy trinity of national saints: “Santa Mozzarella,” “Santa Ricotta,” and “Santa Gorgonzola.”
The town walls of Portorosso are festooned with movie posters for La Strada and the ultimate Vespa fetish film, Roman Holiday. Also, most of the men have big bushy mustaches. Even the sea monsters have a heavy membranous equivalent. Genoa native son Enrico Casarosa is the director of this film and also helped think up the story, which I guess makes it okay that the movie leans so heavily into what some might construe as uncomfortably lazy Italian stereotypes. Santa Gorgonzola!
What dissonance to see a mediocre movie from Pixar, the gold-standard studio that seems to mint classics as often as it nabs Academy Awards. Luca also has the misfortune of coming on the heels of Pixar’s last release, Soul, a far more thematically ambitious, visually creative, and emotionally complex film. Not all Pixar releases need to plumb such depths. But neither should they splash around in such a shallow kiddie pool.