Luca wants to be where the people are. He wants to see, wants to see ’em dancing. Walking around on those, what do you call ’em? Oh, feet. Or, in this case, piedi, since Luca lives in the waters surrounding a picturesque Italian village straight out of a Fellini movie. Combine some of the Italian master’s whimsy with even more of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, along with plenty of Pixar’s now-standard bittersweet lessons about growing up and you get Luca, an affectionate portrait of friendship that never quite rises to the level of the beloved animation studio’s best efforts.

Maybe it’s just a little too simple, both in construction and stakes. Shy, lonely sea monster Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) lives under the sea with his distracted father (Jim Gaffigan) overbearing mother (Maya Rudolph, quickly becoming the default mom of modern American animation). Flipping his fins he don’t get too far, and Luca dreams of exploring the world above the waves. Then he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sea monster who lives wild and free on land, in a house full of gadgets and gizmos a’plenty. Luca and Alberto become inseparable despite Luca’s mom’s protests; she worries about the “land monsters” who want to hurt their kind. Ignoring the danger, Luca travels further and further ashore by the temptations of human food, companionship, and Vespas.

Luca and Alberto make friends with a girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) from the nearby town of Portorosso, and together they all enter a local triathlon in order to defeat a smug bully (Saverio Raimondo). They bond over pasta, triathlon training, and scooters. (Seriously, there’s so much talk about scooters. The last movie that had this many references to Vespas was Spaceballs.)

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And that’s about it. The parallels between Luca and The Little Mermaid are numerous and obvious — there’s even a scene where the sea monsters fumble to name mystifying everyday human objects — but the barriers between between the surface world and the deep are almost non-existent in Pixar’s telling. Luca doesn’t need a magical sea witch to give him legs; stepping on dry land automatically turns his colorful scales into skin and hair. (The film does not address where his tail goes.) That creates occasional complications when he gets splashed with water and his scales suddenly come back. But generally, it just doesn’t seem like a major issue, and Luca and Alberto mostly come and go in Portorosso as they please.

It is a lovely world to explore with them. Luca looks different than other recent Pixar efforts, with more exaggerated, rounded features to the characters, a style recalls European comics. Anyone who’s spent time on the coasts of Italy will see how Pixar captured the flavor of the buildings and the people; the animation of the locals is especially lovely, full of quirky details that feel authentic.

But the lively background sometimes threatens to overshadow and even overwhelm the lead characters, who feel more generic than we’ve come to expect from Pixar. It could be that at less than 90 minutes before credits, there wasn’t time to add nuances and details to Luca and Alberto. As it stands, their friendship feels a little forced and a little fast; they bump into one another and in a few seconds, they beastie besties.

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Luca is the second Pixar release in a row to bypass theaters and go straight to streaming during the Covid pandemic. And unlike most of Disney’s other straight-to-Disney+ titles like Raya and the Last Dragon or Mulan, there’s no additional charge to watch Pixar’s movies. In the case of Pixar’s previous film, Soul, that almost felt like a slap in the face to an exceptional picture and the talented artists who made it. (There are few movies of the last 18 months I’d like to see on the big screen more than Soul.)

While the ongoing devaluation of Pixar is still a depressing sight, it’s also true that Luca is suited to home viewing. It’s not too taxing, heavy, or complicated. It sweeps you away to another time and place without ever making you leave your couch. And it’s so lightweight that if you had paid $20 and devoted several hours to schlepping to a theater and back, it might feel even less satisfying. I do hope to see Pixar back on the big screen soon, though. Preferably with a bold, ambitious movie that lives up to the standards the studio has established over the last 25 years.

RATING: 6/10

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