Nothing Fishy Here

The new Pixar Movie, Luca, ends with a note that it was the first Pixar film animated in their slippers in their homes during the pandemic. And then it got dropped onto Disney+ rather than given a wide theatrical release. Because of this, it might slip under the notice of many… under the water, one might even say. (Alright, I hereby promise this won’t be entirely full of fish puns!) Though I noted its release, I also didn’t know all too much about it and took a bit of time before getting around to watching it.

I’m very happy I did.

Spoilers ahead!

I’ve read various reviews that decry that Luca isn’t as ambitious as other Pixar films, or that it plays it safe, and because of that it is somehow lacking. While, yes, it may not be as fanciful or as high concept as many of their other films, I don’t think that should be held as a knock against Luca. A simple tale, told well, and that touches deeply is still a damn good story. It needn’t be anything else. For instance, Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro is a simple and fanciful tale in which nothing really happens. (Seriously, the plot can be summed up as “Two girls move with their father to the countryside to be closer to their sick mother. They meet some forest spirits. Later, the forest spirits help them reunite when one gets lost.”) But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing and even profound story about the experience of being a child in the face of uncertainty. It’s masterful work.

And that comparison to Miyazaki is apt here, as he was an inspiration to the creators of this movie. Luca is also a straightforward tale that touches on the heartfelt depths of our human experience(es). If we want to get fancy and erudite (and I do!), Luca is a story about the liminal. The sea-monster-coming-onto-land is a metaphor that is teased throughout to speak of transitions, especially the transitions between childhood and adolescence and adulthood. It is about discovery and finding ourselves… and then finding ourselves yet again as we discover something new. It’s about how we grow and yet how we still say the same (in a good way). And above all, it is a story about friendship, and how our friendships might shift yet remain strong. There is a lot here that is very moving.

Plus, the sea-monster coming onto land also works double time to dive into the experience of those of us who find ourselves as an ‘other’ in the world, be it 2SLGBTQIA+ or race or culture or interests or moving to a new town/country or so much more. There’s a great universality there.

Best of all, the story is, on the whole, told quite well. I found it delightful to watch, with moments of joy and wonder and thrill and heartache and possibility. At just a fin over ninety minutes in length, it swims quickly without feeling rushed.

It goes without saying at this point that Pixar’s animation is on point here, with gorgeous water and environments and effortless character animation. Their typical human design here, however, is nicely departed from, and many of the characters in Luca have perhaps an almost Charles Schulz-like roundness to them. The music was appropriately playful and uplifting. And the Italian influence was a nice touch – perhaps bordering a bit on the cliché at times, but still done with a deftness of a director who is themselves Italian.

  • About that runtime; it wasn’t long ago when 90m movies were not only the norm but an almost rigidly enforced wall, especially in animation. That hasn’t been the case for a while, so it was a bit of a surprise to see something so close to that runtime. Now, granted, 5 or 10 or 15 minutes more for these other films may not seem like a much, but that’s roughly an extra 5, 10, or 15 percent of runtime. It can be quite remarkable how much of a difference to how a movie feels even those few extra minutes can have.
  • Fortunately, despite that shortness, as the story in Lucah is well told there are no parts that feel expressly rushed or glossed over. This is a movie that knows it’s intent and sticks too it, and that allows it to flow nicely within its runtime.
  • And I feel compelled here to highlight that bit about knowing it’s intent; it has a theme, it has a destination, and that clarity is what allows it to not only flow so well but also land so powerfully. A good reminder for storytellers.
  • To that point, nicely, and doubly so given the very literal way this could have turned out, the ‘fish out of water’ + ‘hilarity ensues’ cliché never takes the spotlight or dominates. Yeah, it’s there, and needs to be there to explore that liminal nature, but it never (or at least rarely enough that it didn’t stick for me) becomes the main thing of the moment, overshadowing the actual story being told and explored. Again, the movie knows it’s intent.
  • “My dad’s away a lot, so…” Yeah, right in that moment I knew Alberto’s dad wasn’t just gone on long business trips, he was actually absent and Alberto was alone. (Alberto’s look a few scenes later confirms it.)
  • Luca’s dreamscapes are amazing!
  • The sequence where Luca and Alberto are swimming, then leaping (like fish or dolphins) into the air, flying in human form, then splashing gracefully back below the water back into immediate swimming in continual fluid motions, with smiles plastered to their faces, is pure cinematic joy.
  • There are a few moments in the story where I thought “wait, where are the adults in this town?” Most noticeably when Ercole is bullying Luca, Alberto, and Guilia, ostensibly right in front of Mrs Marsigliese who was just signing them up for the race. Why is she not intervening? And what about all the kids being water bombed/etc by Luca’s parents – how can that go on for a day or two without being noticed? It’s not the worst, but it is a bit of convenient glossing over that detracts a bit from the whole.
  • I love love love how Massimo’s missing arm is just a missing arm. It works well for a tension building joke – which is then quickly dissipated and moved on. It’s not his defining character trait. It is a trait, and he’s an otherwise full supporting character.
  • A friend noted to me that many of the Italian songs used are very clever as they reference elements happening in the story at that moment or are otherwise metaphorically linked to the theme(s).
  • The moments of the two or three friends just being friends, just being with each other, are also wonderful.
  • The creepy uncle bit is… weird? I think that was the intent, and it poses a semi-existential threat, but it’s almost too weird. Fortunately, they don’t linger on it, and it only returns in a post-credits scene that is just not my style of humour. (I guess if you get SBC to do some lines for your movie you want to get your money’s worth, so they added that bit in…)
  • The ‘crisis point’ in the movie that splits the friends apart could have felt completely contrived – so many uses of that maneuver (even in other Pixar/Disney films) come off that way: “Oh, here is where the characters get mad at each other so that one will come rushing in to save the day at the end and we’ll all cheer.” (I guess we can blame Han Solo for setting the typology of the returning friend whoopwhoop, and lazy scriptwriters using mundane contrived conflict since they didn’t know how to otherwise split the characters apart. But I digress.) But it works here, because we understand the interiority of the characters. Luca wants X and Alberto wants Y, and sometimes we do really shitty things to preserve what we want.
  • I really appreciated Guilia’s “You think this is what I want?!” exclamation when she, shortly thereafter, discovers Luca’s secret as well. Guilia is upset and berating Luca not because she hates him or thinks him stupid but because of what is likely to happen if he stays. And for one, it’s a reflection of Luca, and he gets it – he didn’t want to do what he just did to Alberto, but he just did. And for two, it’s great because often we misinterpret someone’s actions without getting that there’s a forced hand at play (or at least they feel they are forced).
  • Again, an aside to highlight an importance/reminder in storytelling! That of knowing a character’s interiority (and here’s a nice essay to that fact written here by Flim Crit Hulk).
  • While the above crisis point was great, unfortunately the apology that follows was a letdown. You know I’m going to bring up Zootopia because of course I am, for it had not just one but two amazing apologies. Here though, Luca’s is too short and doesn’t really address it or the impact on Alberto. Which gets further muddled by the “discovery” of Alberto’s missing father. And then it ends with a perfunctory “I’ll make it right by winning the thing we were going to do already so you can have the thing you wanted!” It missed the mark, which, again, is unfortunate. Luca and Alberto and Guilia’s deep friendships are the heart of the movie in both sense of the meanings, and so this is both a big missing and thus does detract somewhat from the narrative and thus the impact of the story.
  • Yet yet yet! With both of that said, Alberto running in with the umbrella, then being revealed, then Lucah coming to his rescue, then both coming to aid Guilia, is still damn satisfying.
  • I would have toned down how much they play up the town’s fear of and specialty for killing ‘sea monsters’, for it makes the ending/denouement too neat. It doesn’t feel real, especially when they go over the top by tearing up the reward poster. It would have been much more powerful to let Massimo’s “They are Luca and Alberto and they are the champions!” acceptance be enough and have the others move on. The townsfolk may have been wary of the spooky tales of the sea, but without them being so militant and harpoon ready (and perhaps killed many in the past?) they could have moved on, lived and let lived, accepted, embraced, and it would’ve felt more like growth than pixie dust magical ending.
  • I did like Ercole’s “No, but we are afraid of you…” retort to Luca’s “I’m not afraid of you.” Gives a good sense of how power is abused… create fear and use it to stomp on others for your own gain.
  • “You got me off the island Luca; I’m okay.” Mmmmm, right in the heart in a good way.
  • Lucah, on the train, the hand slipping from Alberto, then Alberto running off platform and cheering, Luca looking back, and then looking outward with delight, not leaving anything behind but instead embracing both. Absolutely wonderful.
  • And then the credits, with additional sketches as an epilogue. Really loved that. Few films do it (Totoro did, so again this might be a nice homage, but so, in a fashion, did Wall-E) and especially for stories of this type it really works well, cementing the growth and change and love of the characters. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

I rate Lucah as a Good Minus! I enjoyed it aplenty and love its depth wrapped within its straightforward tale (tail?). Nice work by Pixar, and well worth seeing.

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