Considering that the last released Pixar film, “Soul,” dealt with the most complicated and adult themes of any of the studio’s movies to date, their newest animated film, “Luca,” is a complete 360. But the simplicity of this sweet coming of age story is in some ways more beautifully realized than some of Pixar’s more ambitious works.
Set in Italy around the late 1950s, the titular character of “Luca” is a young boy—but not a human boy. Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a sea monster living in the waters off the coast of the quaint seaside town of Portorosso. Luca lives a relatively sheltered life underwater, farming fish with his protective parents Daniela and Lorenzo (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan). But one day Luca meets another sea monster around his age, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). Alberto is adventurous compared to the cautious but curious Luca, and has been to the surface many times. When Luca follows him above water, he discovers that they turn into humans on dry land. After Luca’s parents find out what he’s been up to and decide to send him away to spend the summer with his uncle, Luca and Alberto run away to Portorosso, where they meet a young girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) and scheme to enter triathlon so they can win money to buy a Vespa and travel the world.
“Luca” may not be a film that’s fraught with conflict, but when it comes to maintaining friendships and learning about yourself and your place in the world, from the perspective of a pre-teen, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Initially, Luca and Alberto are inseparable, and it’s clear that Luca looks up to the more experienced Alberto, who seems to have a life that Luca envies. But the more time they spend with other humans, especially Giulia, who introduces Luca to books and school, the duo’s paths begin to diverge. Despite being new friends, Luca and Alberto’s relationship is put through the wringer over the course of one summer, but they come out the stronger for it, and we leave them with the knowledge that this is not just a summer fling. The boys’ secret sea monster identities are well-executed both thematically—representative of being different and trying to fit in in a world that doesn’t seem to accept you—and from a more straightforward story standpoint, as they spend the film trying to avoid their true selves being found out by Giulia and her gruff but soft-hearted fisherman father (Massimo, voiced by Marco Barricelli) while dodging Luca’s parents, who have pursued them on land.
The latter results in some of the film’s funniest sequences, as every drop of water that touches the boys starts to reveal their colorful scales. “Luca” skews toward the more exaggerated in both look and animation, as the characters exhibit a physicality that is more over-the-top and silly than realistic, especially in some of the more slapstick scenes. The design of the characters are more stylized too, possessing a lot of soft, round shapes that contribute to their friendliness. The environments that surround them are simply stunning, the Pixar artists having clearly made good use of research trips to the Italian Riviera for inspiration. Portorosso (a play on the Hayao Miyazaki film “Porco Rosso,” Miyazaki serving as a clear influence in both the look and feel of “Luca”) has a very lived-in appearance that is brimming with charm. The old buildings, stacked on top of each other, are plastered with torn signs and movie posters. The streets are filled with fountains and light and laughter (and gelato). The way the sunlight sparkles on the water is mesmerizing, as are the sunset scenes that bathe the town in an orange glow. If that isn’t enough to make you want to book a trip to Italy immediately, then I don’t know what is. My only regret is that by not giving “Luca” the simultaneous theatrical/Disney Plus release that we’ve gotten with a few other Disney films recently, Disney deprived us of the opportunity to watch these images unfold on the big screen.
Director Enrico Casarosa (who previously helmed the magical Pixar short “La Luna”) drew heavily on his own childhood in Genoa for this film, including his friendship with a boy named Alberto (the real Alberto does a voice in the Italian dub of “Luca”). As personal a story as it is, “Luca” is incredibly universal. It’s a nostalgic ode to the summers of your childhood, where notions of who you might want to be as a person are only just starting to creep in. It’s a slice of life filled with adventures big and small, and the friendships that you form that help shape you as a person, whether those relationships last just for the summer or for a lifetime. There is heartbreak and betrayal, but also triumph and love. I can easily see this film being accessible to different ages for different reasons, making it easy breezy family viewing. “Luca” may be slight, and it may not be incredibly clever, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a mighty impact.
“Luca” is now streaming on Disney Plus. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated PG.