Pixar has a track record of drawing inspiration from other movies.
“Cars” has the same plot as “Doc Hollywood.”
“A Bug’s Life” is heavily influenced by “Seven Samurai.”
Their newest offering, “Luca,” doesn’t completely rip off one movie in particular but viewers will see plenty of homages in director Enrico Casarosa’s feature length debut.
The story has similar elements of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and, strangely enough, “Call Me By Your Name.” The works of famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini are also strongly felt throughout the 96 minutes.
The look of the animation differs from other Pixar films and instead closely resembles the work of Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for characters such as Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit.
And Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (a favorite of the Pixar team) seems to be a muse as well, even referenced in the movie’s setting, a seaside Italian village named Portorosso, which sounds an awful lot like the film “Porco Rosso.”
And that’s the biggest fault with this otherwise lovable streaming offering.
“Luca” is a perfectly fine movie that I quite enjoyed during its short run time. My two-year-old daughter was glued to the screen too. But “Luca” lacks the originality of the very best Pixar films.
The animation studio has set a really high bar with all-time great movies like “Up,” “Inside Out” and the “Toy Story” movies. “Luca” doesn’t come anywhere close to those movies and frankly it doesn’t even cracks Pixar’s top 10.
It’s not anywhere near the bottom of Pixar’s output, which is where I put “The Good Dinosaur” and any sequel that isn’t “Toy Story.”
Middle ground is where this belongs. But Pixar’s middle is still very good.
Director Enrico Casarosa is best known for his animated short “La Luna” which premiered before the Pixar film “Brave” in 2012.
His debut tells the story of Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, of “Room”) a 13-year-old sea creature who is bored with ocean life and is curious about the humans above.
His overbearing parents (voiced masterfully by comedians Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) object to him going anywhere near the surface.
Sounds a lot like “The Little Mermaid,” right? Well, it resembles that classic even more when Luca transforms into a human and has trouble adapting to human customs.
Luca runs away from home and spends the summer with his newfound friend Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer of the “It” movies). Alberto is also a sea monster, but this slightly older/wiser free spirit prefers to live on land and embrace human culture. He begins to teach Luca and they grow to share an obsession with Vespa scooters, making it their life’s mission to ride through Italy. In their minds, they’d be truly free.
Adding a fun visual element to the film is the fact that these two sea monsters look exactly like normal humans whenever they venture out on land. But anytime they get wet, even from a splash of water, their skin immediately changes to bright blue green, revealing their sea monster identities. Once they’ve dried, their human forms quickly return.
It’s a fun gimmick that leads to some clever sight gags as they twist and hide to avoid being detected as brightly colored marine life.
The duo encounters an arrogant bully named Ercole who rides around on a Vespa, styles his hair into a pompadour and pushes around his two dim-witted lackeys. He fits all of the antagonist cliches. He’s got the vanity of Gaston and the weaselly features of Chef Skinner from “Ratatouille.”
Luca and Alberto also befriend a fiery red-headed Italian girl named Giulia and team up with her to win a triathlon to use the prize money to buy a Vespa. The sea monsters decline the swimming portion of the race to avoid detection (despite their strong swimming skills) and instead fumble through bicycle riding and shoveling spaghetti in their mouths.
What we end up seeing is a fish out of water story — literally!
(Yes, I hate myself for making that joke and I’m sure it’s already been done.)
What sets Pixar apart from other animated features is that it deals with deep messages. “Inside Out” helped young people deal with their emotions and “Coco” addresses the issues of death and grief.
“Luca” doesn’t dive as deep as those two, but it’s a strong story about friendship during that awkward time of puberty. The kinds of friendships that help you grow and shape who you are, even if you are unsure exactly what that is at the moment.
The scenes where Luca and Alberto hide away in Alberto’s treehouse and examine their prized artifacts of human life, trying to figure out what each thing does, is something anyone who grew up before the Internet can relate to. Some older kid at your middle school might have a Victoria’s Secret catalogue and he might incorrectly explain the “bird and the bees” to you. This movie captures that youthful innocence.
Casarosa said he based it on a real life summer friendship of his and his inspiration was even at the movie premiere.
There are also some obvious LGBT themes on display in this animated kids movie. However this is in a metaphoric and not literal sense. I do not think Luca and Alberto are romantically in love, at least not overtly. Their relationship is platonic, despite the fact that Alberto appears to be jealous when Luca begins to become closer friends with Giulia.
Yet it is a story about a slightly older boy helping his new friend on a journey of self discovery. It’s about hiding who you really are and being afraid to be caught by others for fear of discrimination. Even the setting is reminiscent of “Call Me By Your Name,” the Oscar-nominated LGBT movie helmed by a director named Luca (coincidence?).
Perhaps June (Pride Month) was the right time to release this movie.
Maybe the fact that “Luca” draws inspiration from so many other movies isn’t such a negative. I can point to several Best Picture winning movies that were heavily inspired by previous works. Where do you draw the line from paying homage and ripping off? It’s hard to say.
In the end, Pixar is a victim of its past successes and “Luca” is a very good movie, just like “Onward” was last year.
But after they’ve raised the bar so many times it feels like a disappointment when their latest offering is merely “very good” instead of “amazing” or an “all-time classic.”
“Luca” will not be available in theaters and is only available to stream on Disney+. It’s disappointing that people won’t have a chance to see this on a big screen. Watching teenagers enjoy the things in life that we take for granted, such as eating a gelato or riding on a bike, is a nice reminder of the joys of youth.
“Luca” might not be a masterpiece but it certainly will crack a smile.
“Luca” is available on Disney+ for no extra charge beginning Friday June 18