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For more than a quarter century, almost every Pixar film has achieved the same near-impossible task of living up to the last Pixar film. From Toy Story and The Incredibles to Up and Wall-E, the animation studio simply has the highest success rate in the movie business. Pixar films have won 17 Oscars and grossed over $14 billion. The only complaint one could muster is while they capture the universal emotions of both childhood and the grown-up world, they never exactly feel personal. Every Pixar offering seems produced by an algorithm—albeit a really, really good one—or at least a team of smart, thoughtful artists who all grew up in the same White American suburb.
Then again, things seem to be changing since the removal of studio chief John Lasseter for sexual harassment in 2017. Coco was co-written by storyboard artist Adrien Molina and was based on his Mexican heritage. Last year’s Soul, about a Black jazz musician who dies and tries to come back for an important gig, was crafted by playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami). Now there’s Luca, which might be the studio’s most personal film yet. Conceived and directed by Enrico Casanova, another storyboard artist, Luca is based on his childhood in Italy and bears an unmistakable stamp of authenticity. You can’t see it, but you can feel it all the same.
That’s not to say Luca is a work of gritty realism: It’s about sea monsters who transform into humans. The teenage Luca Paguro is a creature who lives in the sea under the Italian Riviera with his protective parents and salty grandmother. Luca’s species of fish has a quirk —they turn into humans if they dry out—that he has never dared to exploit until he meets a friend, the adventurous Alberto, who lures him up onto the sand, where Luca grows legs and learns to walk upright. It’s instant evolution. He and Alberto, who lives in a treehouse on land awaiting the return of his father, become best buds and soon decide to venture into town; a life among the humans awaits.
The town, modeled after Casanova’s hometown of Genoa, is filled with characters that feel delightfully specific to its area. There’s Ercole, the local bully who rides through town on his Vespa as if it’s a chariot; Giulia, the tough-as-nails girl who wants nothing more than to beat Giacomo in the town’s triathlon; and Giulia’s father, a one-armed fisherman who, in a cruel twist of fate for our protagonists, hunts legendary sea monsters. Then there’s Alberto himself, who might be the most three-dimensional character Pixar has ever put on screen. Abandoned by his parents, Alberto has formed a personality built on charm and toughness—it’s his plucky confidence that coaxes Luca up onto the sand in the first place—but there’s an underlying vulnerability always threatening to break through his brittle surface.
What animates these characters, as much as Pixar’s beautifully generated mise-en-scene, is the sterling cast of actual youngsters. Too often, animated films rely on movie stars in their twenties to play adolescents, but there is no Tom Holland or Eddie Redmayne to be heard here. 14-year-old Jacob Tremblay (Room) voices Luca, while 17-year-old Jack Dylan Grazer and 12-year-old Emma Berman play Alberto and Guilia. It lends the film a spark that separates Luca from the crowded field of kid-friendly animated films. Tremblay brings a genuine innocence to a character experiencing the world for the first time, while Grazer avoids the temptation to make Alberto sound cooler than he actually is. It’s hard to imagine an older star would have been able to achieve either.
The actors elevate Luca, but what holds it together is the combination of clever humor, sharp storytelling, and watchable scenery that Pixar has relied on for decades. The whole town is on the lookout for sea monsters—their presence is local legend—so Luca and Alberto go to great lengths to stay dry and not give themselves away. It’s good for a few chuckles, as are the efforts of Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan), who venture up onto land themselves, spraying water on children and dunking them in fountains to suss out the identity of their son. The two comic actors hit their punchlines with professional timing, proving there is a place here for celebrities after all.
Yes, much of Luca’s success rests on the sheer competence of all its artists, but the studio’s willingness to look inward and elevate the voices of its below-the-line technicians, now a verifiable trend within the studio, is the major story. Once upon a time, budding young directors had to scrape together their dollars and max out their credit cards to tell the stories of their childhood. Pixar is doing it on the biggest possible stage, expanding its reach, its resonance, and its already-formidable creative capabilities. In other words, it’s finally growing legs.
Luca will be released on Disney+ on June 18.
Correction: A previous version of this post called the character Ercole “Giacomo.”