'Luca' is 'sweet' and 'joyful,' even if it doesn't quite live up to Pixar's greatest hits, critics say

  • "Luca," which arrives on Disney+ Friday, currently holds a 91% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 88 reviews.
  • Critics praised the film's tight story, visuals and heart, calling the film joyful for audiences of all ages.
  • Still, "Luca" has a hard time living up to the standards set by previous Pixar masterpieces like "Inside Out," "Wall-E" or "Finding Nemo," movie reviews said.

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Pixar has extended its streak of critically acclaimed animated features with "Luca."

The 24th film from Disney's Academy Award-winning studio arrives on the company's streaming service on Friday.

The movie centers on two young sea monsters, Luca and Alberto, who venture to a human town along the Italian Riviera for the first time. When they dry off on land, their scales disappear and they can pass for human boys. While hiding their identities, the boys meet a human girl named Giulia, who befriends them and ropes them into the town's annual triathlon competition — biking, swimming and pasta-eating.

"Luca" is visually stunning, but has a hard time living up to the standards set by previous Pixar masterpieces like "Inside Out," "Wall-E" or "Finding Nemo." While heartwarming and well-told, its story is a simple fish-out-of-water tale (literally) that lacks the punch of Pixar's more ambitious projects.

"There are worse things a family summer movie can be than sweet, kind, and affirming of interspecies friendship in all its forms," wrote Dana Stevens in her review of the film for Slate. "But after the high-concept ambition of Pixar films like 'Inside Out,' 'Coco,' 'Soul,' and even 'Toy Story 4,' 'Luca,' for all its pictorial loveliness and standout voice work, feels slightly underwhelming."

Still, "Luca" dazzles when compared with other Disney alternatives, hence the 91% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 88 reviews. It may not be Pixar's best, but it's certainly a good film, critics say.

Here's what critics thought of "Luca" ahead of its debut:

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Director Enrico Casarosa is a 20-year Pixar veteran, having served as a story artist on "Ratatouille," "Up" and the first two Cars movies. He directed the 2011 short "La Luna," which was released in theaters with "Brave," but "Luca" is his feature film directorial debut.

"For their part, the animators at Pixar have imagined that world with customary ingenuity and bright-hued splendor, which makes it something of a shame that most audiences will have to watch the movie on Disney+," Justin Chang wrote in his review of "Luca" for The Los Angeles Times.

He noted the film will play at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood for a limited time, likely to be eligible for Oscar contention in 2022.

"Luca" uses the dichotomy between Roberto and Luca's human forms and their sea creature forms for comedy.

"A splash of water will temporarily restore Luca and Alberto (or parts of them) to their underwater forms — a shapeshifting conceit that allows for a lot of deftly timed, seamlessly visualized slapstick mischief," Chang said.

Like other critics, Chang noted that "Luca" seems modest when compared with the previous, more lofty Pixar tales.

However, "'Luca' is big in all the ways that count; it's the screens that got small," he said.

Read the full review from The Los Angeles Times.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

Alonso Duralde, a reviewer for The Wrap, praised "Luca's" screenwriters Jesse Andrews ("Me, Earl and the Dying Girl") and Mike Jones ("Soul") for hitting classic Pixar story beats.

There are wild moments of physical comedy and a memorable animal sidekick, a cat named Machiavelli, who has the same mustache as his owner.

"The narrative feels fresh, unfolding organically over the course of the summer and never feeling overly reliant on whether or not the boys win the big race," Duralde wrote. "The writers certainly nail the big emotions of the piece, from a shocking betrayal to a series of satisfying, sentimental (get out your handkerchiefs) story beats that wrap up the film."

Read the full review from The Wrap.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

Director Casarosa has been adamant in interviews that all of the relationships in "Luca" are platonic, but that hasn't stopped critics from noticing the potential for Pixar's latest film to appeal to queer audiences.

"Luca and Alberto share an intense, defining, and world-cracking-open bond, but must hide who they really are in the presence of judgmental, fearful others," Richard Lawson wrote in his review of the film for Vanity Fair. "That outline holds an obvious potential for queer allegory, and indeed many Pixar fans tracking the film's development quickly labeled 'Luca' as the studio's 'gay movie' — a coming-out story to be placed on Pixar's mantle alongside its meditations on grief, artistic expression, loneliness, Ayn Rand-ian objectivism, and parenting."

Lawson noted that Disney has not had a solid track record with queer storytelling. "Cruella" sidelined a queer character in clothing boutique owner Artie and the live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast" had an embarrassingly trivial "gay moment" in the form of LeFou dancing with an unnamed man just before the credits roll.

Marvel's "Eternals" promises to feature a queer character near the foreground of the story, but "until then we'll have to settle for half-hearted innuendos," Lawson said.

"Aside from who it may or may not represent, the film is a nice introduction to summer in its intoxicating wash of blues and greens and oranges, the way it conjures up the heady momentum of youth, the thrilling rush of life's pages turning," he said. "'Luca' does well in that regard, though will perhaps be more memorable for what it might have been than for what it actually is."

Read the full review from Vanity Fair.

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

"'Luca' … is another one of Pixar's wondrous and warm creations; a fantastical tale that's deeply rooted in human emotion and quandary," wrote Katie Walsh in her review of the film for Tribune News Service. "Though it would have been delightful on the big screen, at home, kids and parents alike will enjoy this fishy tale of tolerance."

In the film, the humans fear the sea monsters and the sea monsters fear the humans, aka land monsters. This fear comes from a lack of understanding, as neither species has met the other.

"It's the tried-and-true story of what it means to be different, and what it means to be afraid because others fear you for being different," she wrote. "Sea monsters, nationality, race, sexuality, gender, it could be anything, but what matters is who you stand with and who you stand up for."

Read the full review from Tribune News Service.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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