When I was in high school, my favorite band was Talking Heads and I had this weird kind of love-hate anxiety when they would release a new album and I would go to listen for the first time. Would I love the new album because I actually loved it, or would I make myself say I loved it because it was from the Heads, or would lead singer David Byrne have taken them off on some new musical direction that meant I actually didn’t love it, and couldn’t even bring myself to lie that I did?
That’s a bit how I feel about a new film from Pixar.
Pixar Animation is about one of the surest bets around when it comes to delivering solid entertainment. And I don’t mean only in animated titles, but in just great movies in general. While I used to get a bit concerned because Pixar trailers used to seem
so generic and uninteresting—always fearing, “Well, this is the one where Pixar finally misses the mark . . .”—I have come to realize the company just doesn’t produce great trailers, often because their stories are so layered you can’t really hope to encapsulate the whole spirit in a one-to-two-minute spot.
So, even though I wasn’t really overly excited by the trailers for Luca, the 24th film from the studio, which premiered on Disney+ this past Thursday (June 18), I wasn’t overly concerned. But, I’m sad to say, I think this might actually be the company’s weakest film to date, certainly rivaling 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, which is widely considered the worst film in the company’s canon.
LUCA AT A GLANCE
Awful thin for a Pixar movie, especially on the heels of the nuanced and adult, Oscar-winning Soul.
Luca just looks gorgeous—the colors are straight-up eye candy throughout.
Kind of like the story itself, the movie’s Dolby Atmos mix is just satisfactory.
It’s not that Luca is a bad film by any means. In fact, it might even be a good movie. It’s just that it’s not a great one, and that is the nearly impossible situation that Pixar has placed itself in—after delivering film after film of greatness that anything less than a home run is considered disappointing.
I think the letdown is compounded by the fact that Luca follows Soul, the company’s most adult and ambitious title to date, which was so full of, well, soul. Soul took on incredibly deep and heavy issues and had such richly developed characters that the light and saccharine sweetness of Luca just seems all the emptier because of it.
But for Pixar, Luca lacks the depth, weight, and multi-dimensional story we’re used to getting. It’s just . . . simple. It’s hard to really care too deeply about its characters because the story doesn’t give us enough to care about them. Sure, there are tons of metaphors and parallels you can draw. The characters’ goal is to win a race that will give them enough money to buy a Vespa, which the film literally tells us is freedom—the freedom to get out and see the world beyond your four walls, especially exciting for Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who has lived a very sheltered and protected life. (“I never go anywhere. Just dream about it.”) The characters are also hiding the secret about what they really are (sea monsters), looking to fit in and gain acceptance from the small Italian city of Portorosso which hates/fears what they really are. And if you want to draw a parallel to the LGBTQ community here, well, it doesn’t take much of a stretch (Especially at the end, when two more characters come “out.”)
The film takes place around the ‘50s-‘60s on the Italian Riviera, where sea monster Luca spends his days herding fish like a shepherd. One day while out swimming, he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), who shows him that when dry on land, they transform into human form. Alberto pushes Luca beyond his comfort zone, until one day Luca’s parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) discover what he has been doing and threaten to send away to the deep to life with bizarre—and semi-translucent—Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen).
Luca and Alberto swim over to the city of Portorusso, where they attempt to blend in with the “land monsters” and fulfill their dream of getting a Vespa. They befriend Giulia (Emma Berman) whose dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli) happens to be a major fisherman and sea-monster hunter. (Who is clearly inspired by—and is the spitting image of—the dad from Pixar’s short “La Luna.”) The film builds to the Portorusso Cup Triathlon, a race where the winner gets a trophy and prize money, with the boys in constant fear of getting wet and revealing their secret.
One thing you can’t fault Pixar on is the technical presentation, as Luca just looks gorgeous. I watched it the first time on my 4K projector in HDR10 and then again on a new Sony OLED in Dolby Vision, and the colors are just straight-up eye candy throughout. The animation here is definitely more cartoony, not having that hyper-realistic look found in some of Pixar’ss films (e.g., the jazz club scene in Soul). Even still, the colors just burst off the screen, and this will make your video display really pop. You can also tell that the Pixar animators and writers took the time to research life in a small Italian Riviera city, with lots of accurate little details thrown in throughout. (This is also the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who clearly tried to bring as much Italian authenticity and love to the project as possible.)
Water is notoriously difficult to animate and render, but here it just looks fantastic. Also, even through Disney+ streaming (via my Apple TV), I didn’t notice any banding issues as the sunlight filtered from the surface down through various layers, colors, and shades of the ocean—something that looked especially natural on the OLED with Dolby Vision. Another scene had water crashing into a rocky shoreline, with clear and individual detail to each rock, with the foam, froth, and bubbles in the water incredibly detailed. There are also subtle detailed touches like the different shades of color in the sand as water lapped in and out. There is also super-fine detail in the clothing worn, letting you clearly see the differences in fabric texture, patterns, and weaves worn by characters.
Much of Luca takes place in daytime in the town of Portorosso, with brilliant sun shining in piercing blue skies; bright, emerald grasses; and multi-colored buildings, or the warm, golden-orange hues as the sun sets. It all looks gorgeous.
Kind of like the story itself, I found Luca’s audio mix to be just satisfactory. Dialogue is well rendered primarily in the center channel (though it does occasionally follow characters as they move off screen), making it clear and intelligible throughout, but even though it is a Dolby Atmos mix, it was very subtle and reserved. The one dialogue distraction was Giulia’s accent, which seemed to come and go, and was especially pronounced when she is sprinkling in some word or phrase in Italian, kind of like how a Latino chef will go out of their way to over-emphasize some ethnic word like “chili relleno” to let you know just how legit they are.
Italian songs of the era are sprinkled throughout, and they get some room across the front channels and a bit up into the overheads, but the rest of the effects are pretty sparse. There were some instances of the sounds of boats passing up overhead, or a harpoon thrown that passes by, but I didn’t find the sound mix dynamic at all. (Again, whether this was a streaming issue or an Apple TV issue, I can’t say.)
I did notice that the soundfield opened up a bit as Luca leaves the water and goes onto dry land. It wasn’t through a big use of audio, but rather just the sonic sense that the room had expanded with sounds of gentle wind, rustling leaves, and birds that let you know you are up in the human world.
Is Luca worth seeing? For Disney+ subscribers, I’d say definitely. If nothing else, it is beautiful to look at, and it’s a fun, albeit simple, story.
And, it’s not that Luca is a bad film. In fact, you could easily say that while Soul was a Pixar title made for adults, Luca sets its sights squarely on a younger audience, with a coming-of-age story about friendship, acceptance, childhood dreams, and overcoming fears that never gets too deep or strays too far away from safety and cuteness that kids will be drawn to. And if Luca came from any other studio (well, with the exception of Disney Animation, Pixar’s parent company), it would likely be heralded as a triumph. It’s just that Pixar has come to make us expect so much more.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.