The eighth of March 2020 is a day that lives in my own personal infamy – I went to the cinema and watched two movies – the Sad-Dad Ben Affleck opus The Way Back (and what a year he’s had since) and Pixar’s Onward. A double-bill at the movies was a perfectly commonplace thing for me to do, but I did not realise that this would be my last time in a cinema for FIFTEEN MONTHS (a streak that was broken just last week for me). Things in the world of moviedom have changed, perhaps irrevocably since then. Streaming site HBO Max have started day-and-date releases of big Warner Bros blockbusters such as Wonder Woman 84, Godzilla vs Kong and In the Heights and the forthcoming The Suicide Squad, Dune and Matrix 4. Disney has taken a different approach, with their big releases such as Mulan, Pixar’s Soul, Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella going to Premier Access for several months before becoming available to those with a Disney Plus subscription. It is surprising then, that Pixar’s latest Luca is going straight to Disney Plus without the Premier Access stage. Other than in Los Angeles, where there is an opportunity to watch the film at the Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre, Luca will only be available on small screens at home.

Both Onward and Soul were perfectly fine (well Soul had some issues, actually), but neither ascended to the heights we know Pixar are capable of. Pixar have unfortunately not made a truly memorable, extraordinary film in the last decade, for my money (I’m in the minority in not liking Inside Out). They have never returned to the quality of the sublime run that was Ratatouille (2007), Wall:E (2008, my favourite), Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010). So, what of Luca, then? Well it’s definitely an improvement on both Onward and Soul. The character design is something of a refreshing departure and fits in with the short La Luna, by the same director. The Italian fishing village setting was always going to be a big bonus and even on a small screen, some of the visuals are breathtaking. Pixar excels at depicting underwater environs, as we’ve of course seen in Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016), and Luca is no exception, with the underwater farming community that “sea monster” Luca belongs to being stunningly rendered in every shade of green and blue.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay) lives with his parents and grandmother under the sea, longing to explore the world above the water, but his mother (Maya Rudolph) is over-protective. One day he is brave enough to breach the surface and meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) who enjoys his life of freedom spent on land, as a human and exploring the ocean as a sea monster, when he feels like it. Alberto persuades Luca to go to the village in pursuit of something both of their hearts desire – a Vespa. They become embroiled with the town bully Ercole and clever-in-STEM Giulia (Emma Berman) – who are arch-rivals in the town’s annual triathlon – a race with the three usual stages – swimming, cycling and pasta-eating. Luca becomes increasingly torn between the risk-taking Alberto, who isn’t particularly careful about hiding their true natures from a town full of sea-monster-hunters and Giulia, who teaches Luca about the concept of schools and learning about the wider world, nay universe. They unlock two different sides of Luca’s personality and he has to internally wrestle with which person he is.

Giulia’s one-armed fisherman father (reminiscent of Flint’s father in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and his Mussolini-mustachioed cat are two highlights amongst the rich tapestry of characters. Sacha Baron Cohen makes one of his memorable cameos as Luca’s Uncle – a deep-sea monster who is aesthetically-challenged, shall we say. Luca’s parents coming on land and dousing every kid they see with water in an effort to find their son is one of the more comical threads. The loveliest sections of the animation are the sequences where Luca and Alberto swim, leap and dive in the ocean – transforming wholly or partly into humans while in the air and then becoming their true monster selves in the water. There are also dream and fantasy sequences where Luca imagines the night sky full of stars as an ocean of fish or when he discovers the concept of flying machines and imagines them taking him to explore space. The drawings over the end credits are especially delightful and you might feel like it’s a shame that the whole thing wasn’t animated in that style.

The themes will probably be much debated, but the whole thing is a not-so-subtle metaphor about feeling different or unusual, coming to embrace those differences and people accepting others as they are. It is hard to shake the feeling that it’s a queer allegory and not just because it’s set in a “Summer, somewhere in Northern Italy.” Interpretations will vary, but at least you won’t be left in the existential crisis that Pixar desperately hoped to plunge you into with Soul and Inside Out. Luca is a sweet story of friendship with a gorgeous 50s/60s Italian setting, some spectacular underwater animation and a sprinkling of memorable supporting characters. It remains to be seen if this is the start of an upward swing for Pixar, but we can only hope that its on its way to reclaiming some of its past glory. Even if we may not see a Pixar film in cinemas ever again – sniff.

Rating: ★★

Luca will be available on Disney+ from 18 June, 2021.