Every time I review an animated film by Sony, Netflix or DreamWorks, I spend the first couple of minutes talking about the ways they compare poorly to Pixar’s best work. It’s almost always about the script writing, generally, and the comedy bits, specifically. The difference can be quite stark.
Pixar’s top projects feel like they are penned by actual funny people, while the other producers often seem to be randomly generating jokes with algorithms from five years ago. The voice acting is consistently good from studio to studio but laughs just aren’t. When it comes to moral messages, big and small, Pixar either gets it just right or misses slightly by trying to be too clever. They are either a scalpel or a cracked mirror, but they are never a hammer. The others routinely abandon subtlety, but Pixar depends on it, and the result is usually richer and more memorable. I know they have a couple of stinkers on the roster; It’s bound to happen. But on balance, Pixar rules this kingdom.
I don’t think anyone will place “Luca,” out now on Disney+, into the first rank of Pixar titles. But it will not go down as one of those stinkers either—far from it. Set in and around the Italian fishing village of Portorosso, two young sea monsters Luca and Alberto pass as human on a quest for a Vespa scooter they hope will be their ticket to lives of adventure. It’s a modest set up by Pixar standards, nowhere near the breadth and emotional complexity of “Up” or “Wall-E.” And nothing close to the intellectual ambition of “Soul” or “Inside Out.” But as a collection of simple pleasures and effortless charms, “Luca” is very effective. The plot has a familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land vibe and, though the beats are predictable and the stakes are low, the boys and their new pal Giulia ride their believable and adorable chemistry all the way to the credits.
Thematically, “Luca” has a surprising amount of depth for such a light-weight project. Rebellion, bullying, intolerance, abandonment—there’s a lot packed into this tiny package. Like the prejudices that have built up between the adults of the seas monster and human cultures, which make Luca’s and Alberto’s choices potentially dangerous. The film rarely lets you worry about that for long, though. There’s so much breezy friendship and unfussy world-building that the inevitable happy ending is always just around the next bend.
“Luca’s” greatest strength as a film is not its originality, because there isn’t much of that, to be honest. This movie shines because it confirms the continuing quality of the Pixar template. The idea that something with so few innovations could be assembled with such care and craft is inspiring. I’ve seen previous versions of every element in “Luca,” but I was consistently impressed with how the tight, delightful dialogue made it all worth repeating. My one wish is that the ending had been slightly less rushed. What little work the writers did put into the mythology of Portorosso was washed away far too easily by the convenient closing scene. But it’s hard to make even that reasonable critique with a straight face. “Luca” defies its own flaws with so much charisma, I feel guilty naming any of them.
I don’t know why the others even try sometimes. In almost every measurable category, Pixar regularly shames the heavy hitters in the field. “Luca” is a perfect example of how important it is to build your factory so well that everything you create, even if it isn’t your best, is still better than everybody else.