Ten years ago, ahead of the Pixar film Brave, I remember seeing a beautiful short called La Luna, about three generations of a family who were tasked with cleaning up all of the fallen stars that had collected on the surface of the moon. Despite its surreal premise, it was firmly grounded in a familial reality that I always read as “males in an Italian family.” I knew nothing about the director, Enrico Casarosa, but when I sat down to watch the latest Pixar feature, Luca, I immediately recognized the character designs as being remarkably similar to those in La Luna. There are similar themes in both works, in addition to the multi-generational family dynamic. Both are primarily focused on aquatic locations (or at least aquatic adjacent), and the way the characters relate to the stars in the sky cues us into the fact that this vision is pulled directly from childhood.
Written by Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Mike Jones (Soul), Luca centers on a young sea monster of the same name (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who comes from a simple home life with his mother (Maya Rudolph), father (Jim Gaffigan), and spirited grandmother (Sandy Martin). Luca is a type of shepherd, wrangling young fish beneath the ocean floor in an effort to keep them from getting scooped up by the local fishermen who live in the (fictional) village of Portorosso, on the Italian Riviera. But Luca is also slightly obsessed with the surface world. His parents have raised him to believe that humans are the true monsters of the earth and have hammered into him that going above the waterline would likely result in a quick death.
But after meeting a slightly older, more adventurous sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), Luca is tempted to the surface where he discovers that after drying off, he looks remarkably like a human, enough to walk among the humans of the town (once he figures out how his legs work) and pass without anyone noticing. But make no mistake, Portorosso is a town fearful of sea monsters, with every fishing boat stocking extra harpoons, just in case a sea monster rears its ugly head. After his father disappeared, Alberto has lived primarily on land, in an abandoned castle, with only his dreams of owning a Vespa to keep him company.
Eventually, the kids make their way to the nearby town and soon discover a few things: that there are nice humans who want to be their friends, including Giulia (Emma Berman), a young girl who lives with her fisherman father and is training to win the annual cycling/swimming/pasta-eating competition, typically won each year by the town bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo). When Luca and Alberto realize that the prize money from the race can be used to buy a highly coveted Vespa, they decide to join Giulia to form a team, which might be hampered by the fact that as soon as the boys get any body part wet, they turn back into sea monsters.
Meanwhile, underwater, Luca’s parents discover that he’s been spending his days among the humans and threaten to send him off to the deepest waters of the ocean with their weird Uncle Ugo (a truly demented cameo by Sacha Baron Cohen). Instead, Luca flees to Portorosso to live permanently and train, and his parents follow him, hoping to rescue their resourceful boy.
At its core, Luca is about friendship and being “the other” who simply wants to blend in. The fishing village, as well as the underwater community, is painted as fairly small minded when it comes to outsiders, but naturally once common ground is discovered, a great deal of the fear subsides. The film is hardly top-tier Pixar (like Inside Out, Wall-E, Soul, or the Toy Story films), but it still offers up stunning production design (made to look like 1960s Italy), talented voice actors, and a loyalty message so sweet and inoffensive, you’d have to be looking for trouble to find anything wrong with it. At the same time, it doesn’t feel as if it’s pandering to children or dumbing down its themes to make the messages go down easier. The film features a pretty nasty villain, a Judas-level betrayal, and some genuinely life-threatening moments, and still it feels legitimately safe for kids of most ages to watch. The warm colors of the fishing village and the warm hearts of its citizens basically win the day, and sometimes, that’s enough.
The film will be available on Friday exclusively on Disney+.
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