More than any American animation studio that exists, one gets the feeling that Pixar Animation Studios would love it very much for us to compare all of their movies to the work of Japan's Studio Ghibli, and especially that studio’s co-founder and most prolific director, Miyazaki Hayao. So first things first: congratulations to Luca, the 24th Pixar feature and the first directed by Enrico Casarosa (who previously made the 2011 short La Luna at the studio): it is just about the most explicitly Miyazaki-esque film they've ever made. This is in part an indirect way of saying that it's a blatant rip-off of Miyazaki's 2008 feature Ponyo on the Cliff (or just Ponyo, if you hate poetry), which is, among other things, not the first Miyzaki film I would encourage people to blatantly rip-off, but whatever, it's better than another Cars sequel.

Even less generously still, it's an indirect way of saying that Luca is a film where almost nothing happen and it is awfully happen to linger over all of that almost nothing. At 95 minutes, this is Pixar's shortest feature since the 1990s, but it's also among the most lazily paced - leisurely, I am sure Casarosa and his squad of co-authors (Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones, Simon Stephenson) would rather we put it. And I suppose there's something to the idea that this is just a blissful summer hangout between three friends with nothing to hurry towards, and that we should just enjoy the energetically soft colors with which the film whips up a dreamy vision of the Italian Mediterranean coast and the all-encompassing lack of dramatic conflict (one of the most Miyzakian elements of the film is that it doesn't have a real bad guy; an antagonistic jerk, to be sure, but I think it would break the word to try to call him a villain).

I would think this even more if Luca were better at establishing those three characters as anything other than generic smudges. The title character is one of those "my conservative, cautious society doesn't understand what a beautiful dreamer I am" types who have become such an unimaginative cliché in contemporary children's movies; in this particular case, Luca (Jacob Tremblay, who comes much the closest of any of the three juvenile leads to having a genuine vocal personality) is a sea monster living in the Mediterranean shallows, where his mom (Maya Rudolph) and dad (Jim Gaffigan) refuse to tell him anything about how the world works, insisting that he just keep tending to the family's flock of sheep-like fish and never be curious about anything. This causes problems when detritus from the above-water human world starts to land on the sea floor near Luca's home, and before you can say "whoosits and whatsits galore" he wants to be where the people are. This turns out to be almost as easily done as said: another adolescent sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) shows up to collect the aforementioned detritus, which is from his collection, and practically the same hour shows Luca how, when they step out of the water and have a minute to dry off in the sun, their species transforms to look just like humans. Thus begins a a series of illicit hang-outs during the day, and when Luca's parents threaten to make him repent for his above-water ways by joining his wacked-out uncle (Sacha Baron Cohen) in his trench, the two boys flee for the nearby human town of Portorosso - an overt Miyzaki reference, to his 1992 film Porco Rosso - in the hopes of fulfilling Alberto’s dream of acquiring a Vespa. Here, they meet fellow misfit Giulia (Emma Berman), an adventurous young nerd who loves astronomy and wants to beat the local bully, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), at the annual Portorosso relay race.*

This all happens very fast. From the Luxo, Jr. logo to the point that Luca and and Alberto are on the lam from Luca's family feels more like a prologue than a first act, and I stress that Luca himself feels like every protagonist from every American animated kids' film (and Luca is the most explicit "for the kids" movie that Pixar has made since A Bug's Life, or ever) in part because drawing on clichés is pretty much all the screenplay ever does to establish him as a character at all. The primordial sin of Luca is that Luca feels like a vague space around which a film happens, and other than "is cocky and loves Vespas so much that it sort of stop feeling like a joke and just feels like product placement", Alberto isn't much different. Giulia is maybe a tad more defined, not without her own set of clichés (she's a combination of '90s tomboy and '10s girls-in-STEM tropes), but at least I can imagine who she was before the movie started. With Luca, that never comes close to happening.

As speedily as the film bursts through all the set-up, failing in the process to actually set things up, it then jams on the brakes hard at Portorosso, resulting a kind of "hurry up and stand still" vibe. Pacing is a massive problem for this film, with the macro-level saunter through scenes of no real plot jangling against the micro-level way that Giulia always seems to be shouting and running around; if there was such a thing as "drowsily manic", I'd use that term, and heck, maybe Luca proves that there is. The best that can be said about the story is that it's pleasant, and low-stakes movies are far too rare in the modern big-budget ecosystem, and there is something charming about how these three kids just kind of pad around enjoying each other's company. It would be so much easier to feel like that was enough if I knew who there were or had even a single reason to care about them, but a laconic mood isn't the worst thing.

Anyway, it's still a Pixar film, and absent a Cars 2-level catastrophe of a screenplay, it's hard to imagine a film of theirs being out-and-out bad. This is still much less narratively arid than Onward, or even Finding Dory, and it looks nicer than either of them. The studio still has the best computers in the business, and Luca is putting them to solid enough use, if it's hardly testing any limits. Portorosso is no photorealistic seaside glory of Italian beauty; it's a snug little collection of gentle colors with some outstanding lighting effects that evoke the Mediterranean sun on pastel chalk. It's not the most evocative world Pixar has ever created, and it's an outrage how quickly the film rushes to get to the surface, given how much beautiful even the most banal version of the seafloor looks, but the softness of the look matches well with the softness of the story. I absolute cannot get behind the character design, which unsteadily marries the caricatures of Miyazaki figures (the mustaches, in particular, feel aggressively Miyazaki-like) with the horrible bug-eyed, bean-mouthed look of so much of American television animation, ugly in two dimensions and outright dismal in three. The three kids have flat, banal, affectless faces, locked into unexpressive smirks and smiles, blankly staring at the world around them. It's very bad, especially given how little the screenplay is trying to make me feel like there's anything likable about their presence (the sea monster forms are much better to look at, but they're minimised fairly early on in the story).

It's all very... insubstantial. It's a pleasant, snoozy kids' movie, a nice little tale about friendship and being brave and not letting bullies get you done, and all the other things that about ten-thousand other movies have already looked at, with a mild sense of humor and pleasurable-enough production design and digitital sunshine. I can't recommend against it, I can't recommend it; it's just kind of there. Hooray for Pixar.

*I sort of get why people are trying to force the Call Me By Your Name scenario onto the film, but if one wants to try and insist that these kids are presented as sexual beings of any sort - a reading the film pretty openly pushes against - one has to account for the fact that the film would then be proposing Luca/Giulia as a much better couple than Luca/Alberto.