I don’t think anyone would argue that times are now (March 2020 – now, August 2021) and the foreseeable future are rife with change. To have gone from a lifestyle where one could go as they pleased to having to keep distance from neighbors out of concern for protecting young ones is, well, hard. It’s not a change anyone willfully desires given the unknown psychological toll it’s having on the world at large. At times like these, joy seems both distant and precious, something to be nurtured and appreciated at every opportunity. It seems weird to say this, corporate dominance crafting a shadow everywhere it goes, but Walt Disney Studios has found itself to be a great source of joy for a great while and largely due to fortunate timing which created an opportunity for altruism. Through their streaming service Disney+, Walt Disney has continued to release new content (some available at a cost via their Premium Access channel) while others (Hamilton, Artemis Fowl, Howard, The One and Only Ivan, and Soul) were made available on their respective launch days. Conceived in concept and directed by Enrico Casarosa, recent pivot-to-Disney+ Luca is a beautiful, hopeful, and surprisingly deep exploration of change which utilizes the metaphor of physical metamorphosis to explore the philosophical in a tale accessible for the young and young at heart. While you can always visit Luca, Alberto, Guilia, and the citizens of fictional town Portorosso on Disney+, for those who prefer a more tangible option, Luca arrives on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital-to-own August 3rd.
Under the water, out past the shoreline of Portorosso, lives young boy Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Trembley) in his community of sea people. Though timid, he longs for a life beyond his nekton habitat, dreaming of a bigger life than just herding fish. Without warning, an opportunity comes for him when he meets Alberto Scorfano (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), a boy like him who lives alone on an island nearby, who offers to teach Luca the ways of the humans, creating a gateway for adventure beyond the water. Once his parents learn of his trips to the surface and threaten to send him to live with his uncle in the depths of the ocean, Luca runs off with Alberto to Portorosso, willing to risk discovery and be killed rather than stay under water. As luck would have it, the upcoming Portorosso Cup offers just the opportunity to give the two boys what they need to hit the road for good.
Adventure is the keyword that fuels all of Luca, but the real core of it is discovery. Discovery of a world beyond the horizon, discovery of a world beyond what we know of ourselves, and the adventure that comes from discovering who you are able to become. Luca is a protagonist we’ve seen before in the sense that he’s a character who undergoes a physical transformation in order to move past a life he’s afraid he’ll grow too comfortable within. He longs for something else, not dangerous necessarily, but from outside the confines of his underwater town. We’ve seen this before with Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid (1989), but what makes Luca different is that his transformation occurs without magical assistance and its high cost is entirely related to Luca’s direct actions. To obfuscate no further, if you’re coming to this home release review having not seen the film, but are aware of it, you may have noticed that I left out one aspect in the plot summary: when Luca, Alberto, or any of the other sea people emerge from the water and dry off, they look human. This transformation has been interpreted a number of different ways (and there’s evidence in the text to support it), but this review will explore it only in a broad metaphorical sense. In this case, the risk of transforming from one physical form to another is akin to puberty, a period where young individuals start to break away from their pack and form their own individual identity. Thus, Luca becomes a tale of self-discovery as he forges friendships that will come to impact his life in apparent and subtle ways.
Strangely, Luca is a film that I’ve had to warm to where many of my critic colleagues have almost instantly fallen in love. There’s something about the pacing of the first 30 minutes where Luca meets Alberto, braves the transformation, and starts spending time on land that feels slow. But once they hit Portorosso and meets Guilia (voiced by Emma Berman), as well as the rest of the town’s residents, not only does the film hit its stride, but the emotional impact sneaks up on you until you’re internally screaming, rooting for Luca to win the Portorosso Cup, even when it’s your third viewing. The first viewing was, to me, all about discovery — learning these characters and their journey — but it’s been upon repeat viewings that the lessons of friendship Casarosa and co-writers Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Mike Jones (Soul) bloomed. In the same way that Luca, Alberto, and Guilia come into each other’s lives suddenly, each offering something vastly different to the others yet each fitting in harmony, I recall my own childhood friendships. Like Luca, I felt odd, out of place, uncertain of who I was and where I wanted to be, and I found my childhood tribe, who helped me survive adolescence. Remarkably, these animated characters come alive with each new viewing, enabling the audience to either go on this same journey again and again or to see themselves, young once more, trying to figure out what “skin” fits. In the bonus features, Casarosa explains that the character of Alberto is inspired by his own childhood friend, someone dissimilar from himself yet a part of him. As beautiful as the art direction and character design are, for my money, what makes Luca such a powerful and transformative experience is how the story itself reminds us of friendships we once had and the shadows of those we’ve loved which remain with us into adulthood. It’s for this reason, as Luca stands on the step platform of the train leaving Portorossa for Genova, on his way to a new adventure with Guilia, as the falling rain reveals his true self, I, too, cry remembering the power of finding my people and accepting myself for all of my weirdness.
If you felt this same sense of joy watching Luca, you’re going to enjoy the few, but deep featurettes accompanying the home release. In “Our Italian Inspiration,” join the creative team as they journey to Cinque Terre, Italy, to explore the place they’d only heard of from Casarosa’s stories. More than just a perk of the job, this is a pure artistic scouting mission to get color, architecture, and lighting samples. To get a sense of how the flora and fauna behave, the sense of community among the townspeople, and the way each co-exist. There’s a moment where a member of the design team highlights how the architecture creates a sharp contrast between lit and shaded areas, which is immediately juxtaposed with a shot of Luca wherein Guilia gives a ride to Luca and Alberto up a hill which has light coming and going in a similar form. These tiny details are what give Luca its virility. If the technical side of things is more your speed, jump into “Secretly A Sea Monster” which will walk you through how they came to design Luca and his fellow sea people, as well as how the themes of the film directly connect to that transformative process. This one, in particular, appeals to the folks interested in the mechanics of world/character design, as well as how directly tied those mechanics are to character. It’s one thing to say “Luca transforms from a sea person to a land person” and it’s another to consider what that transformation looks like, how that impacts Luca physically and emotionally, and what it means to protect or shun that transformation. On the lighter side of things, “Best Friends” offers a chance for the main three cast members, and a few others, to share their thoughts on the film through the lens of their experiences. Interested in seeing something new? There are over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, mostly incomplete sketches with temporary voices made to look animated, that show off just how different the film could’ve been. For one, alternate opening “Starfish Hunt” establishes a much braver version of Luca, while “Here Comes Guilia” sets up a different dynamic between the three lead characters. With the ability to compare and contrast, the final version is by far the superior edition that offers a more inclusive and loving story.
Outside of the special features, which evidentially vary by retailer and edition, though I’m not entirely sure how or where, all that remains is the reproduction on disc. If you’ve been watching on Disney+ then most of the options here are already available to you depending on your set-up. If you have the tech, you can already stream the film in 4K UHD video with HDR10, but audio only seems to go to 5.1. The physical release for the 4K UHD set includes HDR, as well as support for Dolby Atmos. Additionally, the Blu-ray supports English 7.1 DTS-HDMA for those with more complex home theater setups. In short, if you’re happy with what’s available on Disney+, you’re going to be more than satisfied with the look and sound of the home release. Personally, jumping between the 4K UHD disc for the feature and the Blu-ray for the special features, I can’t help but recommend the 4K UHD disc if you love the visuals of Luca. It’s not that Luca becomes somehow less vibrant, it’s that the endless summer vibe evoked throughout Casarosa’s tale doesn’t feel as prominent on the HD release. Admittedly, it’s most noticeable when jumping between the formats, so if you don’t plan to jump from one to another, it’s not going to be something which’ll stand out or bother.
Some films hit us immediately, some never do, and some require time and patience. This is, in many ways, emblematic of us all on our own journeys to discover ourselves. If we’re lucky, even for a brief while, we’ll have people who enter our lives and leave an indelible mark for the better, those who saw us for ourselves and not the expectations we felt we had to meet or, worse, couldn’t believe we could. Luca delightfully captures this feeling of stark terror of internal turmoil with the revelation of interpersonal growth, culminating in an ending that’s truly extraordinary for the subtle way the emotions build and release within the viewer. That’s what Luca has come to be for me. I may not get pulled in by the first third, but by the end I am a puddle of a mess. It’s honestly truly nice to be so affected by something, whether an artistic creation or by real people. Connections matter and Luca is a heartfelt reminder as to why.
Luca Special Features
- Our Italian Inspiration – Experience the joy of discovery as Pixar artists travel to Cinque Terre, Italy, to absorb the beauty and culture of the coastal region which inspired the characters and the quintessential Italian backdrop of Luca. (14:22)
- Secretly A Sea Monster – Explore the artistry and technical innovation of Luca’s transformation from sea monster to human, and how the theme of transformation is central to the emotional journey of the main characters. (12:24)
- Best Friends – Best friends can challenge us, inspire us, annoy us, and encourage us. The cast and crew of Luca share their own stories about how besties influenced their lives, and how those experiences informed the creation of screen pals Luca, Alberto and Giulia. (7:16)
- Deleted Scenes (30:30)
- Introduction – Director Enrico Casarosa introduces scenes not included in the final version of “Luca.”
- Starfish Hunt (Alternate Opening) – Luca explores the shore and the sea, gathering mussels and starfish, in this serene alternate opening to the film.
- Isola Del Mare (Alternate Opening) – Luca welcomes viewers to the quiet island he calls home.
- Festa Del Mare – The boys go to a festival filled with fun … and danger.
- Here Comes Giulia – Giulia explores Isola Del Mare, where she meets Luca and Alberto, and asks so many questions.
- Gelato Trouble – Giulia offers to treat Luca and Alberto to something called “gelato.”
- Sea Monster Cannery – Luca dreams about a magical place filled with Vespas and gelato, but things aren’t quite what they seem.
- Disney+ Sneak Peeks
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available for streaming on Disney+ June 18th, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital August 3rd, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.