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On Luca, Tenet, The Invisible Man and Other Films from the Early Pandemic Era that Deserve More Big-Screen Time

What a pleasure it was seeing the Pixar movie “Luca” on a big screen on Easter Sunday, and not just because it was part of AMC Theaters’ “Fan Faves” series, which screens older (typically family) movies for $5 a ticket. “Luca” was one of the early pandemic era movies that I missed due to, well, the pandemic. Like two other Pixar movies from that period, “Soul” and “Turning Red,” its theatrical release was sacrificed so that Pixar’s parent company, Walt Disney, could send it directly to their then-new streaming service, Disney +, to lure subscribers. The movie got a one-week theatrical release at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles to qualify for Oscars but didn’t play in any other theaters in the United States, until this year. 

“Luca” is a refreshingly small-scaled and straightforward movie about friendship and acceptance, with minimal fantasy elements (save for the gimmick of having the two main characters, a couple of teenaged buddies, be sea monsters posing as humans). There are a couple of pretty mild "messages" (it’s good to be nice to people even if they don’t look like you—and also, friendship is important) but it’s not like recent Pixar movies that play like a series of teachable moments aimed more at parents than kids. It’s modeled on  animated features by Hayao Miyazaki (there's even a cat that'll give you "My Neighbor Tortoro" flashbacks) and Italian melodramas released by Federico Fellini (“I Vitelloni”) back when he was making films about small town life and had not yet entered his ringmaster-impresario phase. "Lucas" is mostly charming and funny and low-key and sweet all the way up to the end, which has an emotional heft that might catch you by surprise because it comes from the gradual accumulation of character details over the preceding 90 minutes. 

In all, it definitely feels like a movie, not a streaming cartoon series where the voice acting and dialogue carry the story. Working from a script by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, director Enrico Casarosa (an actual Italian, Che colpo di fortuna!) uses the wide screen like a mural painter, and holds shots long enough for you to admire what they contain rather than nervously cutting to the next thing. Seeing “Luca” made me wish that I could see more films that got booted from theaters prematurely in 2020 and 2021, or else never got to play them in the first place because people were staying home and streaming platforms tied to major film studios decided to try to build up a captive audience. 

You might recall that Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” did play theaters during the first pandemic summer, 2020, but didn’t do very well because people were (justifiably!) scared about catching a disease and dying fast. The movie was rereleased earlier this year in IMAX format as a one-shot item and made $600,000 on 55 screens, a big enough per-screen average to qualify as a hit. Might it have continued to earn at that rate if it had been left in place—or simply re-released more widely, in additional formats? 

And what about the horror thriller “The Invisible Man,” one of the most mercilessly tense films I’ve seen in the past decade? It got released right before lockdown and made $144 million globally, a staggering haul for a medium-budgeted genre picture whose biggest star was Elisabeth Moss. Who knows what it would’ve made if it had been released six months earlier or two years later? I do know that if they brought it back to theaters, I’d see it again and bring friends.

Among films that never or barely got theatrical releases, Spike Lee’s Vietnam epic “Da 5 Bloods,” about old war buddies going back to the jungle in search of buried treasure, felt huge even on a laptop screen with earbuds providing sound. I’d imagine it would feel absolutely gigantic in a decent-sized theater (it didn’t get to play very many, except as a part of Netflix’s bid for awards that the movie unfortunately didn’t get). Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs,” a Groundhog Day”-like comedy parable starring Andy Samberg, is another one that looks and moves like a real movie and would play great in a proper setting. “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is another one I’d like to see return to theaters. Netflix gave it a customary perfunctory release and then pulled it. I saw it at a local multiplex and thought it played great in a large format. It did so well in a brief window that I believe the streamer left money on the table by not allowing for a longer stay.  

Box-office wise, two epic musicals from that period, John M. Chu's adaptation "In the Heights" and Steven Spielberg's version of "West Side Story," were essentially trying to win a footrace with their ankles tied together. Musicals are a tough sell even without a plague. These films' exhibition footprints were drastically reduced by Covid-19 fears, which dampened overall attendance and didn't produce a bona fide smash until the release of "Spider-Man: No Way Home" in December 2021 compelled viewers to return to theaters again to feel like they were part of another live-action MCU event (arguably the last really big one post-"Endgame"). I masked up and went to see both films in (sparsely attended) screenings and loved them both—especially "West Side Story," one of Spielberg's best-directed movies, which is really saying something. 

There are so many films from the early pandemic period that could and possibly should return to theaters. I’ve listed a few here. What are yours?

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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