To argue that Pixar’s latest film, Luca, is simple validates its effectiveness. Ever since Cars 2 unceremoniously snapped the animation studio’s golden run, Luxo Jr.’s hop across the Pixar logo hasn’t been met with the same reverence. In recent years, Pixar has vacillated between high-power sequels and beloved properties, praised productions from old-guard figures like Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich and original stories from fresh talents. The results aren’t always stellar, but the studio still has that patented spark from time to time.
Luca, a sun-soaked Italian dream of childhood from first-time feature director Enrico Casarosa, wears its influences on its sleeve. Casarosa has name-checked Italian master Federico Fellini and anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki as influences on his debut, but it’s easy to find the ambling hangout vibes of Richard Linklater and the distinctly dry European wit and cuteness of Aardman Animations in Luca’s riviera, too. Luca masters something that Pixar’s recent films have lacked: an elemental loyalty to easy truths. As great as films like Soul, Coco, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4 and Onward have been, you could tell the studio was straining a little bit to recapture the daring complexity that came so effortlessly during that sterling run from 1995’s Toy Story to 2010’s Toy Story 3.
Casarosa & Co. manage to tell a story that’s as universal as can be with themes easy to find yourself in, but with an emotional richness that fully captures the joyous fragility of childhood memories and friendships. In this film, the titular Luca — a sea monster who can appear as a human on land — meets another creature like him (Alberto, a more cavalier monster), who challenges him to journey outside his comfort zone to have the best summer possible. They make friends, dream of escaping town on a Vespa, eat copious amounts of pesto pasta dishes, tussle with neighborhood bullies and explore the Italian countryside, brought to life with as much beauty as any Pixar setting thus far.
The film’s themes ultimately find something more pressing: an acceptance of self, yes, but an acceptance of self amid a world that might not accept you back. Luca welcomes underdogs and outcasts of all stripes to learn to love themselves, and it encourages us all to look back on our childhoods fondly. Few memories are as simultaneously wonderful and difficult to parse as those that happen when we’re young, and Luca’s best quality is its ability to capture that feeling in a bottle, shake it a little and watch it glow as the sun sets on a special summer day.