Review: Luca, from an Italian American’s Point of View

Year: 2021

Runtime: 101 minutes

Director: Enrico Casarosa

Writers: Enrico Casarosa, Jesse Andrews, Simon Stephenson, Mike Jones, Julie Lynn (consultant), Randall Green (consultant)

Actors: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Sacha Baron Cohen

By Joan Amenn

**Spoilers: The following is a discussion of major plot points for the film, “Luca.” If you have not seen the film already, proceed with caution. **

Ah, sunny Italy. I’ve never been there, although many members of my family have.  As a fourth generation Italian American, I was curious how Pixar would portray my ancestral home in their new film, “Luca” (2021). I came away with mixed feelings about it; not really loving the film but not strongly disliking it either.

“Luca” has the misfortune of being released after the acclaim of the deeply metaphysical “Soul” (2020) and so comparisons are inevitable. Not all animated films have to wrestle with philosophical themes and “Luca” is indeed a fun and breezy romp. However, Disney and Pixar by extension, have made themselves out to be the kind of studio that values cultural representation. “Coco” (2017) was exquisite and even the animated “Mulan” (1998) was a depiction of a true Asian legend, if you don’t mind the talking dragon. But “Luca” feels like the culture is tacked on instead of integrated into the story.

For one thing, Italians are passionate about food but of course, “Ratatouille” (2007) claimed that attribute for the French. Instead, “Luca” makes pasta a part of the race that is key to the plot but it seems forced. This is especially true when the sponsor of the race represents a company that sells mass produced and packaged dry pasta. Sure, Italians don’t always make their own from scratch, but that stung my pride a little.

The friendship between Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) is touching but again, Pixar and Disney have revisited “buddy films” so many times before. The new element here is Giulia (Emma Berman) and her red-hot obsession with winning her town’s annual competition matches her fiery hair. I am grateful that I finally get to see some diversity in how Italians look instead of the typical dark eyed, dark haired cliché. For the record, my great-grandmother had auburn hair and my Sicilian grandfather was tall, blue-eyed and blonde. Giulia’s enthusiasm for life in general accounts for much of why I enjoyed the film.

Machiavelli the cat is another reason to appreciate “Luca” since he is obviously a homage to the films of Ghibli. I didn’t find “Luca” laugh out loud funny but Signore Machiavelli has his moments. There are actually many small moments of pleasure in “Luca” but they don’t all add up to a cohesive and strong story. There seems to have been many reworkings of the script if the number of writers and writing consultants in the credits are any indication.

This would explain a few plot points that didn’t seem completely thought out to me. For example, if “Luca” and his people are shepherds of the ocean’s fish, what do they do with them? The film implies they do not eat them since they consider themselves kindred sea creatures so why do they tend to them? Why not just swim along with them as part of the ocean biosphere like Ariel (Jodi Benson)in “The Little Mermaid” (1989)?

There are several similarities to “The Little Mermaid” in “Luca” and even a similar conversation between him and his friend Alberto to Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and Timon (Nathan Lane) debating what the stars are in “The Lion King” (1994). While the two boys have great chemistry together, their adventures aren’t memorable because they aren’t all that new.

 I would have loved to be able to say “Luca” does for the Italians what “Coco” did for Mexican heritage. That it comes up short in my opinion is disappointing but I can still enjoy it for the light summer entertainment that it certainly is. Fortunately, there are others working in animation who may not have the marketing power behind “Luca” but are still great storytellers. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to find your representation or you just have to be your own voice.

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