It seems pretty clear now, looking back over Pixar’s quarter-century of feature filmmaking, just how influential the studio has been in shaping our current media moment. When Pixar started with the first Toy Story (1995), the model was still movies making cash by putting butts in seats (plus selling DVDs and merch afterward), whereas now it’s mainly garnering and keeping “subscribers” for various streamers. Both actual box office revenue (for movies) and ad revenue (for television) seem to matter less and less.
Though Disney and Pixar were a perfect merger when it came to creating a world-dominating entity ruling children’s media — a real match made in hell — it was Pixar that pioneered a kind of turbocharged plotting that left Disney’s quaint old narratives in the dust. And made mandatory the binge model of viewing (and scripting) that subscription-driven streamers like Netflix, HBOMax, and, increasingly, Disney+ rely so heavily upon.
As most people know by now, fast-paced, overstuffed narrative is addictive, kind of like sugar and salt pumped into fast foods. If you want to encourage binge-watching, voracious consumption, and rabid brand loyalty, you can’t do better than to create narratives with an almost overwhelming emotional workout, belly laughs and wrenching sobs and wild chase scenes and nail-biting cliff-hangers presented at such a rapid clip they would’ve astounded even old-time “classic” Hollywood filmmakers, who were pretty good at that game themselves.
Let’s do a basic plot comparison between an old classic Disney animated feature film and the new Pixar feature film, Luca. Here’s Bambi (1942):
Bambi is a fawn who grows up as the “prince of the forest,” befriending other animals like rabbits and skunks, experiencing changing seasons and new weather like rain and snow. Then his mother is killed by a hunter. His father, the stag king of the forest, appears, and Bambi goes off with him. Grown up, Bambi meets a doe he likes named Faline, but has to fight a rival young buck for her. Then there’s a forest fire. He and Faline survive, and it’s clear Bambi will eventually become the new king of the forest. The end.
Now, here’s Luca:
A young sea monster named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), frustrated with his dull undersea life herding goatfish off the coast of Italy, defies his overprotective parents’ warnings and begins visiting land. There, he automatically changes into a preteen human boy, which is the way this world works for fantastical reasons, and he meets another sea monster/boy named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who lives alone in an abandoned lighthouse on the shore. They see a 1960s poster of a Vespa on the wall, and they’re so enthralled with the freedom and adventure it symbolizes that they keep trying to build one themselves out of old junk that washes up out of the sea. Riding their makeshift scooters down dangerous hills that plunge into the surf helps Luca overcome the risk-aversion instilled by his parents.
But ultimately, Luca’s parents catch him in his out-of-water-adventures, and threaten to send him into the lightless depths of the ocean with his creepy Uncle Ugo (Sasha Baron Cohen doing delightful work). Ugo looks something like a black seadevil anglerfish, reliant on the light organ on a stalk between his eyes, and he has transparent abdominal skin so you can see his organs working.
(It’s an odd conceit of the film that the ocean is a dull or even unpleasant place compared to the land. This baffles me. I don’t see why there couldn’t be a film about land creatures desperate to live in the amazing ocean, a reverse Little Mermaid. But there never is.)
Anyway, to avoid this fate of living in the ocean depths, Luca flees with Alberto to the nearby Italian fishing town of Portorosso, where the locals are inconveniently obsessed with killing sea monsters. There they meet Giulia (Emma Berman), a lively redheaded girl with a burning ambition to win the local triathlon that involves three competitions, in cycling, swimming, and eating mounds of pasta.
So far, Giulia’s always lost the triathlon to Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), a comical, strutting young bully with two mean-kid henchmen. She enlists Luca and Alberto in training for the triathlon and brings them to live at her house with her huge, taciturn fisherman father.
Giulia is also embroiled in her studies, in preparation for returning to school in Genoa, where her mother lives. Through talking to her about astronomy, Luca becomes enthralled with new adventures of the mind, which creates tensions in his friendship with Alberto, an earthier kid still fixated on Vespa dreams. Also, Alberto has a secret sorrow, having been abandoned by his sea monster father for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Meanwhile, Luca discovers that his parents, in human form, are hunting for him, throwing water over all the kids in town to see if they turn into sea monsters . . .
There’s a lot more, but we’d start getting into spoilers.
As you can see, it’s pretty overplotted. By now, that’s regarded as the winning formula that keeps Pixar-Disney execs counting their billions of dollars in profits. And a big part of Pixar’s reputation is built on a supposed “story is everything” commitment: “It’s been said that the secret to Pixar Animation Studios’ success is story. That’s the mantra. Story, story, story. And, of course — story.”
That’s a lotta story! And Luca knows how to get that engine moving, deploying one of Pixar’s most reliable narrative tropes: start with a lunatic premise involving somebody wanting to become something or succeed in life at something that’s virtually impossible for them. A friend of mine calls this now-common plot in children’s movies the “spatula wants to be a ballet dancer” plot. Arguably, Pixar pioneered it with one of its greatest film achievements, Ratatouille (2007). Its rat-wants-to-be-a-top-chef story necessitates an amazing amount of often outlandish plot twists and turns to get him there. And I say that while admitting that I always adored Ratatouille — it’s the exception that proves the rule. That rat chef movie speaks to my depths.
Luke Epplin of the Atlantic cites Disney’s Dumbo (1941), however, as the first example of what he calls “magic-feather syndrome” in animated films, referring to the crow’s feather given to baby elephant Dumbo to convince him he can use his abnormally large ears to fly like a bird.
It’s probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children’s movies overlaps with the so-called “cult of self-esteem.” The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.
But even having said all that, I find I enjoy Pixar movies more than I once did. It used to be that, with the release of almost every film from that studio, I would gripe energetically about how some of the greatest animation talent in the world was sadly tied to a soppy and sanitized product. Maybe it’s just that we’re deluged with so much more terrible media, but these days, I’m more inclined to appreciate the sheer craft of the animation and wearily tolerate the soppiness. Maybe it’s just that my eyes are tired of watching crap, and Pixar films always look soothingly lovely, even if it’s almost always a Disneyfied loveliness, everything cutely rounded and clean-lined and candy-colored.
Luca is no different — it looks very lovely. But is too hectic narratively, straining to be a sobfest at the end, as if kids going away to school is some ultimate tragic goodbye. It’s the first feature directed by Enrico Casarosa, though he also did a nice Pixar short earlier called La Luna. Casarosa also gets a story-by credit, as one of five writers working on the film, and he describes this as a personal movie based on his childhood in Genoa and summers spent on beaches where he met a troublemaking kid who helped bring him out of his timidity.
Stick around for the end credits, decorated with drawings of the characters illustrating their lives after the end of the movie. You can usually spot Pixar animators trying out another style of animation in the end credits. It’s frequently flatter and more modernist, with visibly sketchier lines and blotches of color, which I guess they don’t dare use in an entire feature film because that’s not the “brand” look.
I wish there could be an “Alternative Pixar” movie series financed by the company’s loose pocket change, where they do everything off-brand and non-formulaic, and the wonderfully gifted animators get to go wild. That would be exciting. But things being what they are, we can still admire the artists’ gifts, however trammeled they might be.