Basking in the Mediterranean setting of Pixar’s new animation Luca, the first comparison that springs to mind is a Japanese one. The clear, blue-green seas, lush vegetation, idyllic village life, blue skies and giant white clouds: this is Miyazaki territory. This is despite the fact that Hayao Miyazaki, the famed founder of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, lives several thousand miles away.
Anime in general, and Miyazaki in particular, has always had a thing for European stories and settings, and aficionados will enjoy spotting the similarities with Luca. Director Enrico Casarosa has readily acknowledged that Miyazaki looms large in his DNA. He directed his team to study Miyazaki’s back catalogue, and it shows. The story centres on two boy “sea monsters” who come ashore to sample human life: a theme not dissimilar to Miyazaki’s Ponyo. Luca’s semi-magical rites of passage also bring to mind Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are a few Leonardo-like flying machines that could have come from Castle in the Sky. And, most of all, the coastal setting brings to mind Miyazaki’s 1992 film Porco Rosso, a story of seaplanes and piracy set in 1930s Italy. Luca’s village is even named “Portorosso” in homage. Beyond specific references, the overall feel of Luca is more Miyazaki than Pixar: warm, nostalgic, jokey and action packed – and often genuinely poignant. Even Luca’s 3D computer animation feels as lovingly detailed and “hand-crafted” as Ghibli’s old-school line animation. It’s almost as if Pixar is doing a better job at being Ghibli than Ghibli itself.
Ghibli has been in choppy waters since Miyazaki announced, then unannounced, his retirement. Perversely, its latest effort attempts to do a Pixar. Directed by Hayao’s son, Gorô Miyazaki, Earwig and the Witch is its first entirely computer-animated feature. The animation looks primitive compared to Pixar’s, synthetic and stilted, and the story is disappointingly muddled.
Miyazaki senior was famously dismissive of CGI. In 2007, he closed down Ghibli’s computer graphics department and went back to purely hand-drawn animation. Hayao Miyazaki is currently working on one last hand-drawn feature: How Do You Live? It is reportedly progressing slowly. There is still life in old-school line animation, though. Last year’s Demon Slayer: Mugen Train became the highest grossing movie ever in Japan, beating Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
This is not to say Pixar is “ripping off” Ghibli. There is plenty to distinguish Luca in its own right, and American and Japanese animation have always been in dialogue (Miyazaki’s Ponyo was inspired by Disney’s The Little Mermaid). But Luca is a sign of how far Miyazaki’s sensibility has seeped into the wider animation world, which is no bad thing. It’s all his territory now.