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Luca is streaming on Disney+ from 18 June.

Luca is a young sea monster who, in traditional Disney fashion, has helicopter parents terrified of letting go. He spends his days tending the family’s flock of fish (who bleat like sheep) until an unexpected visitor arrives – a slightly older sea monster boy named Alberto – who persuades him to breach the water and take his first steps on land, where he discovers that he, like all of his species, magically turns human once dry.

The film has some fun with reversing the usual body transformation horror tropes, with Luca expressing shock and disgust at having become a terrifying ‘land monster’, and some of its most expressive animation comes in a short and charming sequence where Luca is taught to walk by Alberto, but can’t help reverting to fishy, squirming movements on the ground.

On land, in the small Italian fishing town of Portorosso, is where we spend the majority of our time with Luca and Alberto in this literal fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s perhaps a shame that little is made of the quickly-discarded underwater realm, but the animators’ world-building efforts in the town are undeniably rich. (The film is directed by Enrico Casarosa, stepping up from story and ‘creative team’ credits on the likes of Coco, The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4.) 

After Luca’s initial discomfort and unfamiliarity with his human form has worn off, he eventually warms to the human world that his parents had been careful to warn him of, helped along the way by Alberto, his knowledgeable (if sometimes cocky) guide, who has been living alone above land for a long time.

Luca (2021)

What follows is a summer holiday-style adventure of low-stakes drama and pleasant, warm vignettes, a refreshing, cool drink of a story in which at no point do any characters have to make peace with their imminent death (à la Toy Story 3). The two boys’ shared fantasy is to own that quintessential emblem of Italian style, the Vespa, and to travel freely across the world. For Luca this is a dream of the freedom never given to him by his parents, whilst for Alberto it is emblematic of a lack of a true home.

They soon stumble across goofy, redheaded Giulia, with whom they join forces in order to compete in Portorosso’s ‘traditional Italian triathlon’ of swimming, eating pasta and cycling, the plan being to win the cash prize, buy their Vespa and to drive off into the sunset. The trio are a treat to watch, voiced with enthusiasm and charisma that matches the film’s bright aesthetic.

Of course, what the BBFC would call ‘mild threat’ is present too, in that this sleepy Italian town is a hostile environment for sea monsters, whom the villagers (correctly) believe in and are (incorrectly) frightened of. Luca and Alberto have to take pains to stay dry, as a drop of water on their skin turns that patch into scales. This brings in Luca’s moral theme, of intolerance of difference, but, like all of the film’s more serious moments, it’s given a light touch. Instead, central conflicts are petty childhood falling outs, sure to resonate with a young audience.

As with Pixar’s last two features, Onward and Soul, Luca has been pushed prematurely onto Disney+; far from being a tentpole in the summer cinema schedule, it’s a draw for new subscribers to the burgeoning service. Despite it being a pleasant, charming and beautifully crafted summer story, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Pixar’s magic touch is starting to wane. Out of the past decade’s 13 Pixar films, two, perhaps three, are worthy of animation classic status, a far cry from the studio’s name-making, flawless opening run. Luca is certainly not up to that early standard, but amongst recent efforts it’s an affable and enjoyable highlight.

Further reading

Soul’s afterlife body-swap comedy shows Pixar still has it

By Lou Thomas

Soul’s afterlife body-swap comedy shows Pixar still has it

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By Violet Lucca

Film of the week: Coco, Pixar’s vital dance with los muertos

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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