'Luca' Review: Sweet And Simple Is The Best Recipe In Pixar's Exquisite Ghibli-Inspired Throwback

Simple is underrated. Especially at Pixar where, in recent years, filmmakers are putting more and more stock in high concept stories and high-quality CG innovations that are bringing the visuals of their films scarily close to reality. But is the ultimate end-goal of animation really to get as close to reality as it can be? Is an incredibly life-like cat that roams the streets of a photorealistic New York City really better than a chunky feline that looks like it stepped out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie?

There's no right answer to those questions. But Luca is proof that, at least, there isn't one straight and narrow path for animation to progress down. Sometimes, looking back is even better than looking forward.

A lovely throwback fairy tale directed by Enrico Casarosa in his feature directorial debut, Luca is the antithesis of everything Pixar has been working toward in recent years. And that's good. That's exceptional, really, because it defies the Pixar formula in such a refreshing but simple way. Instead of focusing on how detailed every fiber of a character's hair is, we get animation inspired by the Claymation of Aardman, by the pastoral idylls of Studio Ghibli, by Looney Tunes characters when they pinwheel their limbs as they dive off a cliff. Instead of high-concept explorations of inner feelings or the afterlife, we get a story so beautifully specific and universal: those fleeting summer friendships that change your life forever.

Inspired by Casarosa's own childhood growing up by the Italian Riviera and befriending a wild-child boy whose beaming confidence hid the hurt of a broken family, Luca follows a sheltered sea monster named Luca (a sweet Jacob Tremblay) who ventures out to the surface at the urging of the free-spirited Alberto (a scene-stealing Jack Dylan Grazer, who delivers a performance both insanely charismatic and deeply vulnerable), a fellow teen sea monster who had been living on an island on the surface world, surrounded by human treasures he had collected over the years. The two of them wonder what it would be like to venture out to the nearby human town, and dream of owning a Vespa, the magical vehicle on Alberto's poster that can take them around the world and through the skies.

But Luca's jaunts to the surface are quickly discovered by his overprotective parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan, both a little too broad and out of place here), who threaten to send Luca to the depths of the sea, where he can never explore the surface again. Fearful of losing his newfound freedom, Luca and Alberto run away to the nearby human town of Portorosso, where they enter a triathlon with spunky outsider Giulia (delightful newcomer Emma Berman) to win a grand prize with which they can finally buy their precious Vespa.

One of the many wonderful aspects of Luca is how incredibly low stakes it is. Sure, there's a competition, a town bully (a clownishly slimy Saverio Raimondo), and Luca and Alberto's constant fear of being "discovered" for their sea monster natures if a drop of water were to spill on them — in a town with an ingrained superstition of sea monsters, at that — but Luca is not about some world-shattering thing. It's about being with these characters, this trio of outsiders, and the different colors of their friendships. Luca discovers a kindred spirit of discovery in Giulia, who loves space and rockets, showing Luca books of the wonders of the galaxy. And as Luca stops looking at Alberto as his one guiding light and starts looking to the stars, Alberto begins to feel the pangs of a dimming relationship.

It's the closest Pixar has ever gotten to a Hayao Miyazaki film, and not just in the wholesome "cozy" atmosphere that Ghibli movies are often mistakenly dismissed as. There are surface-level similarities — Casarosa has spoken about the influence that Miyazaki's early TV works left on his art style, and it shows — especially in the design of Giulia's chunky cat who takes an early suspicion of Luca and Alberto, and in Giulia's burly fisherman father Massimo, both of whom look like they stepped straight out of Kiki's Delivery Service. But there's a faintly bittersweet undercurrent to Luca and its exploration of fading friendships and growing new ones, that feels more emotionally honest than Pixar's recent high-minded exploration of mid-life crises. There's a constant expectation in Pixar films that their worth is based on how much they make you cry, but with those bigger, explosive emotional climaxes come a greater visibility of the strings that are pulling at your heart. But Luca eases you into the familiar, dependable coming-of-age story that unfolds a little too sadly like those real-like friendships — sometimes the little hurts and betrayals leave deeper scars.

But one peculiar element that Luca shares with Ghibli films is the concept of "Ma" –  a Japanese word that roughly translates to "emptiness" or "negative space" and refers to the space between actions. It was something that I was surprised to find within Luca, as it rarely appears in the fast-paced Western films that have no time to take a breath before the next gag. But for brief moments, Luca comes to a standstill, holding on a delicate moment between Luca and Alberto as they ponder the fish they believe to be floating in the sky. It's as if the movie took you by the shoulders and said, "Wait! Hold on to this moment, savor it, grip it close to your chest."

And as that moment lingers, and you (read: I) wonder if you're really just enjoying a film because it bears a passing thematic and aesthetic resemblance to the films you uphold as the pinnacle of animation, Luca does something magical. It transforms into a twinkling vision of Luca's childlike imagination, as Luca and Alberto glide through the skies, dipping and pirouetting around the schools of fish that fly around the moon. The warm, sun-dappled colors (which bring out Casarosa's nostalgic vision of 1950s Italy) that had been ever-present in Luca until now give way to cool, luminescent hues. It's breathtaking, and a perfect representation of the simple joys of Luca.

Far too often, simple is mistaken for simplicity. But just because a sketch is drawn in clean, broad strokes does not make it lesser than a richly detailed portrait. The layered dynamics and pure, honest emotions underneath Luca's simple coming-of-age story are what elevate the film to one of Pixar's best — and an example of what animation can be if they stop trying to race forward, and just stop and take a breath.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10