Summer wouldn’t be summer without a Pixar film to savor. The studio’s latest release, via Disney, is “Luca,” a beguiling fable of friendship and discovery set on, and off, the glittering coastline of the Italian Riviera in the mid-20th century. But first a few words about how the film will be seen—literally seen—before looking at its charms, and at some limitations that I’ll save for last.
Instead of opening in theaters, as productions from Pixar Animation Studios traditionally do, this one will be showing only on the Disney+ channel, except for a single token engagement at El Capitan, the company’s flagship theater in Hollywood.
Approximate precedents can be found. After the theatrical run of “Onward” was cut short by the pandemic in March 2020, the picture reached most of its audience through streaming. “Soul” played exclusively on TV screens last December because of the Covid-19 shutdown. But those were singular circumstances.
Now many theaters around the country have reopened, and wider openings are imminent. Yet Disney, Pixar’s owner, has chosen to turn “Luca” into streaming fodder. It’s a decision that diminishes the Pixar brand and raises questions about the future of a studio that has set phenomenally high standards for originality, elegant craftsmanship and narrative energy. Or amplifies fairly recent questions, since “Onward” was, for all its cheerful oddity, erratically crafted and transparently desperate to please.
“Luca” does please, at its own pace—with visions of an Italian village as radiant as a travel poster; undersea sequences that recall a more innocent time in animated entertainment; a couple of spirited buddies exploring a domain that’s above as well as beyond their imaginations; and a magical transformation that gets better each time it’s repeated.