Luca ★★★★½

Pixar does Ponyo meets Kiki's Delivery Service and I love it!

One of my least favorite animation trends within Disney/Pixar over the last few years has been a sense of realism for the sake of realism, accompanied by character design that makes everyone essentially look a little like Elsa. On that front, Luca's adorable, deceptively simple, soft-around-the-edges visual style was a breath of fresh air (or, uh, ocean?) from the get-go. It's just nice seeing animation that feels stylistic again, closer to something you might expect from Pixar Shorts than from the last few years of movies. On the surface (no pun intended) I've seen some people say that the style feels like a step-down for Pixar from their usual hyperrealism, more reminiscent of Dreamworks or *shudders* Illumination than anything else. But this mindset mistakes the visual simplicity for a lack of cleverness and creativity. While simple, Luca features some of the most endearing and hilarious visual gags, use of textures and light, and flat-out funny character design Pixar has done in years - the perfect mix of a grounded human tangibility and an adorably cartoonish and rubbery slapstick feel.

If the visual style here feels more simplistic and childlike for the better, it's joined by a story (and overall vibe) that comes across as remarkably breezy compared to some of Pixar's more recent films - even compared to the average kids' movie today. Some have made comparisons to Studio Ghibli (as I did at the start) and this might lead you to believe that the film features a lot of what Miyazaki calls "ma" - those moments where Ghibli characters sit quietly, soak in the moment, and hear the wind brushing softly through the trees. Luca doesn't quite reach that level of tranquility or softness, but it still exudes the same low-stakes, childlike, neighborly kindness of something like Kiki's, Ponyo, or My Neighbor Totoro. The voice acting (featuring real kids who sound like real kids) adds a lot to the overall sense of innocence - though I could've done without someone like Maya Rudolph, who seems like she’s determined to play every last "animated mother character" in cinema these days. Of course, the plot still demands a big finale ("we have to win the race!!") in a way most Ghibli movies would not, but the way that the building conflict resolves itself does feel lovably light and whimsical in a way few Disney films would dare to be these days.

I've binged my favorite Pixar shorts several times this past year, from La Luna to Us Again to Piper, Presto, Lou, For The Birds, and Day & Night - and watching them, I often thought to myself "man, I wish someone would make full-length animated features with this level of simplicity and joy." Luca feels like a direct answer to that wish, packed with childlike charisma to the last gill. I just wish I could've seen it in a theater!

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