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Disney+ Review: Luca

June 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Enrico Casarosa, the director behind Pixar’s wonderful new feature Luca, has cited the works of Hayao Miyazaki and the Japanese animated films of Studio Ghibli as sources of inspiration for his Italy-set film.

While this might seem like an odd thing to say, since Pixar has its own completely recognizable style that is still on display here, the Ghibli influences are felt in the whimsical but grounded nature of Luca. The film plays out in a charmingly low-key way, beautifully evoking the feel of a summer hangout movie.

The title character is Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), an adolescent sea monster who is reaching that age where he is starting to get curious about the surface world and the “land monsters” who live above, despite repeated warnings from his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) that it is dangerous up there.

Then Luca meets the gregarious and outgoing Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), another young sea monster who collects human objects and splits his time in the surface world, taking advantage of their ability to take on human form above water. Alberto pulls Luca into the human world, and shows him a life that he didn’t know was possible. The boys bond over their shared dream of owning a Vespa, which to them represents the freedom to go wherever they want.

Eventually, the boys venture into the local fishing town of Portorosso, where the residents are evidently scared of sea monsters. It’s here that they meet Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman), a spunky girl who recognizes them as fellow outsiders, something that the town bully, and Giulia’s rival, Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), instantly dislikes them for. Giulia takes the boys back to meet her father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), a local fisherman who firmly believes the legends about sea monsters and has a wall adorned with harpoons to hunt them.

There is a real charm to Luca in how it lets us tag along with the characters as they eat pasta and go on bike rides. While it doesn’t have the most elaborate plot compared to some of Pixar’s other films, this is in no way a bad thing. It has a slice-of-life quality to it that I found refreshing and is perhaps meant as an homage to the great Italian neorealist film movement, only the protagonists here just so happen to be sea monsters. This is one of those films where not much and everything is at stake at the same time; the plot itself may seem simple, but the stakes for the characters couldn’t be higher.

The film does an excellent job showing the friendship that forms between Luca and Alberto, and how it changes when Giulia enters the picture. The fear of being “found out” adds tension to the story, with every drop of water that reaches their skin threatening to reveal their sea monster form to the outside world. The film is in no way explicitly a queer coming of age story, but the subtext is there if you choose to interpret it in that way. The story has an overarching message about accepting differences, but it never feels preachy, and is handled in a very sweet and poignant way.

The film is a very personal one for Casarosa, with the story inspired by his own adolescent friendship with a more adventurous boy named Alberto who helped pull him out of his shell. While Portorosso itself is a fictional place, the film beautifully captures the look of an Italian seaside town, right down to the old buildings and cobblestone streets. It’s never specified when exactly it takes place, but the lack of technology suggests it could be the 1970s or 1980s, when Casarosa himself was growing up in Italy.

The look of the film is also unique for Pixar. Unlike many of the studio’s other features, Luca isn’t going for photorealism, and the film has a more stylized look to it that really works for the story. It’s a very warm movie with a soft, summery colour palate. Casarosa previously directed the sweet Pixar short film La Luna, and the designs of the characters here very much recall that 2012 short. There are also some wonderful magical realist touches throughout as Luca imagines himself among the stars, images that instantly evoke the memory of La Luna.

Luca serves as an incredibly charming and delightful coming of age adventure, and a very heartfelt tribute to the friends who help us grow and try new things along the way. The animation is visually splendid, and the voice actors do a wonderful job bringing their characters to life, including fine work from young stars Tremblay and Grazer. Dan Romer’s music is another highpoint of the film, providing perfect accompaniment to both the action and emotional beats, with a few music cues that made my heart swell.

Everything about the film simply works. It offers a sweet, well-told story that lets us hang out with likeable characters for an hour and a half. And the bittersweet final few scenes prove that Pixar is still unparalleled when it comes to tugging on our heartstrings and getting us choked up. This film really captured my heart.

Luca will be available to stream on Disney+ as of June 18th.

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