“I wanted only to try and live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”
– Demian (Hermann Hesse)
“You are probably too young to remember this,” I once told my high school students, “But Pixar used to make good movies.” Like many of the things I say to get a rise out of the youngsters, the statement had an element of hyperbole to it. Not many of Pixar’s recent films have been really, offensively bad (the ones that have are not the ones you’re thinking of), 2019’s Toy Story 4 is very nearly as good as its three estimable predecessors, and so on. All the same, over ten years after the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010, the studio’s glory days seem ever more distant, ever more unattainable, lost in a haze of limp sequels and unsuccessful attempts to recapture old magic. Every few years, a new Pixar film is hailed as a “return to form” and then forgotten shortly thereafter.
Luca is not a return to form, but this need not be a mark against it; in fact, for the most part, it seems blissfully unaware of form. Like Toy Story 4, it trades in the calculated, Swiss-watch plotting of the studio’s early masterpieces and the belabored self-consciousness of more recent efforts for something more meandering, languorous, and open-ended. The film, which concerns a youthful sea monster’s attempts to masquerade as a human and purchase a Vespa, is a slight, modest affair, and this is for the best; the most impressive thing about the plot is how little plot there is. Unlike Pixar’s recent Soul, which attempted to make sweeping existential claims and ended up saying little of anything (“Enjoy Life,” which – well, cool, thanks), Luca largely seems content to evoke a time, a place, an experience.
I should not overstate my case; of course, there is a Three-Act Structure, and there is a Message. The early passages of the film will offer no surprises to anyone who has seen even a handful of animated films for children from the last twenty-five years. The premise is modern kids’ cartoon boilerplate: it is a paean to Being Yourself, complete with repressive, intolerant parents who must be enlightened by the natural, salutary rebellion of their children. Ironically, while they trumpet subversion, these sorts of films – the “Junior Knows Best” genre, to use a turn of phrase coined by Steven D. Greydanus – have become pretty staid, pretty conventional. Nonetheless, Luca ends up being a wiser, more mature film than it initially lets on.
For all the film’s modern trappings, textbook plotting, and zany humor, there is a welcome hint of storybook timelessness about it. The pastel-colored animation is technically cutting-edge – here is one area in which Pixar has never gone downhill – but it is also appealingly quaint, foregoing realism in favor of stylization and simple, bold images. The result is poised, a bit uneasily, somewhere between the stately dignity of Studio Ghibli and the hectic banality of most American animation. Luca pointedly recalls the works of Hayao Miyazaki – the seaside town where much of the action takes place is called Portorosso, in clear tribute to Porco Rosso, and the underwater vistas recall Ponyo – but it only musters about a tenth of those films’ visual splendor. (There are other ways in which it is pleasingly steeped in film culture: Portorosso is littered with classic movie posters, from Roman Holiday to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Federico Fellini’s La Strada, a snapshot of iconic Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni puts in an appearance, and the ending, with a tearful parting at a train station, is so David Lean.)
Like the hero of Hermann Hesse’s Jungian novel Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is caught between two different realms: the familiar, respectable world of his childhood home and a dark, unknown world of forbidden knowledge. Just as the older boy and aspirational figure Max Demian urges Emil Sinclair to question what he has been taught, rebellious Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) guides Luca out of his parents’ limited world and begins his ascent to self-realization. (His first transformation from a sea creature into a human is like a Darwinian ascent of man: he emerges out of the surf onto dry land.) You could retitle it Alberto: The Story of Luca Paguro’s Youth.
The central conceit of Luca – that the hero is a sea monster who must conceal his true self on dry land – lends itself to a myriad of allegorical interpretations, but like a good myth, it declines to commit to any one of them. Its symbolic language is taken primarily from Jungian psychology, with the underwater world standing in for the unconscious; Luca’s journey to the surface world symbolizes the emergence of his conscious self, a progression that plays out through images. Early on, underwater, Luca gazes at his distorted reflection in a bubble; he does not yet have a clear picture of himself. Later, the stars are reflected in his eye as he looks into a telescope, a key step on his path to enlightenment.
Luca proves to be a fine little bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story concerned less with procuring motor scooters and more with its hero’s growing knowledge of the world and of himself. The underwater world is filled out with rural imagery: when we first meet him, Luca is a submarine shepherd boy, corralling a school of white fish with a crooked staff and sharing meals with his parents in a small, crude hut. When he travels to Portorosso with Alberto, it is a variation on the timeworn tale of the rustic peasant going into town. Luca frames these two worlds on a sliding scale, though. After they discover his disobedience, Luca’s parents threaten to send him to the bottom of the ocean, a realm of deep darkness populated only by whale carcasses (likely an oblique reference to Pinocchio, another story about becoming a real boy). Meanwhile, Portorosso is only a small town; Julia (Emma Berman), a human girl Luca befriends, is going to attend school in Genova, a far greater center of culture and enlightenment. “There are big towns called cities?” Luca blurts out, shocked. “Like even bigger than Portorosso?”
The film’s most striking adjustment of the Junior Knows Best formula is that Alberto is not right about everything. Luca’s ascent does not end in Portorosso, nor does it end in pure, unfettered freedom from responsibility. Alberto urges Luca to leave his pastoral home, but resists the idea of leaving the small town to go to school in Genova. As the film progresses, Alberto is subtly paralleled with the villainous bully Ercole Visconti, nicknamed “Signor Vespa,” who is also refusing to grow up; there is a hint of Peter Pan and Captain Hook in the dynamic. The Vespa is the icon of freedom, but Signor Vespa is clearly too old to be competing against the likes of Luca, Alberto, and Julia in the town’s yearly summer contests. Like Alberto, he would rather stay a big fish in a small pond than go out to the ocean where he belongs. Luca and Alberto’s refrain is “Vespa è Libertà” – “Vespa is freedom” – but in the end, you sell the Vespa so you can go to school.
In the end, you have to grow up.