Producers: Andrea Warren Director: Enrico Casarosa Screenplay: Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Lorenzo Crisci, Marina Massironi, Gino La Monica, Sandy Martin, Giacomo Gianniotti and Sacha Baron Cohen Distributor: Disney
Though it’s not as psychologically ambitious as some of the studio’s other films, Pixar delivers an absolute charmer in this sweet animated fable about unlikely friendships and the acceptance of the differences among us. Though “Luca” isn’t without serious undercurrents, its eschewal of the more grandiose aspirations of “Inside Out” or “Soul” will make it all the more enchanting for kids, without in any way diluting its attractions for adults.
The first feature from Enrico Casarosa, whose short “La Luna” (echoes of which recur periodically here) made a splash back in 2012, is literally a fish-out-of-water, or more precisely sea-monster-out-of-water, story. The time is apparently the 1950s or 1960s, and Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a young denizen of the deep off the coast of the Italian Riviera with aquamarine skin, blue hair, gill ears, flipper feet and a tail.
Luca spends his days shepherding the family’s flock—or school, if you prefer—of fish. But he’s fascinated by the bits of the land world he’s collected from the sea bottom—an alarm clock, a playing card, a gramophone—despite the warnings of his voluble mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) about its dire dangers of land monsters, though his father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) is much less the helicopter parent, and his Grandma (Sandy Martin) positively dismissive.
One day Luca meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), another young sea monster, who leads him to an island off the coast. To his amazement Luca finds that when he climbs onto the shore he, like Alberto, is transformed into a human boy. (It’s no accident that among the books he’ll later glimpse is “Pinocchio.”) Alberto, who’s been living in an abandoned stone tower on the island awaiting, he says, his father’s return, teaches Luca about the human world—or what he thinks he knows of it (the stars, he informs Luca gravely, are fish)—and how to walk on land. Both boys are especially enamored of the Vespa, the motorcycle depicted on a poster on Alberto’s wall—the ultimate emblem of freedom—and fantasize about having one. They even cobble together an approximation of a Vespa from pieces of wood and metal.
When Daniela discovers what her son’s been doing, of course, she’s furious, and threatens to send him to live with his oddball uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen), a kind of gruesome anglerfish, on the ocean floor. Luca decides to run away from home and join Alberto permanently, and the two boys eventually decide to travel to the coastal village of Portorosso, where they find fear and hatred of sea monsters are common among the residents.
The two boys quickly fall afoul of the preening town bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo), who owns the only Vespa in town, but are befriended by tomboy Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman), who spends the summers there with her one-armed fisherman father Massimo (Marco Barricelli) and his cat Machiavelli. They decide to join her in her quest to win the town’s annual triathlon—which involves swimming, pasta eating and a bicycle race, as well as a prize that could buy a Vespa—against Ercole, while helping Massimo increase his catch.
The complications that ensue are foreseeable. The most notable, of course, is the boys’ tendency to revert to sea monster form whenever they get wet, which happens at inopportune moments, though for a long time only Machiavelli notices. But there’s a further problem when Daniela and Lorenzo come looking for their son, transforming into human form, of course, when they take to land and splashing water on every kid they encounter to find him.
Then there’s Luca’s desire to learn more and more of the world, which leads to his increasing closeness to Giulia, whose schoolbooks are revelatory, and estrangement from Alberto, whose jealousy kicks in. The culmination of it all comes, naturally, with the triathlon, in which the trio is beset with obstacles, not least when it begins to rain.
By comparison to Pixar’s more extravagant efforts, “Luca” tells a simple story, but the simplicity, with its easygoing blend of comedy, action and sentiment, is itself endearing. As directed by Casarosa and edited by Catherine Apple and Jason Hudak, it moves gingerly while avoiding the overly frantic pace so common in animated family fare (including some of Pixar’s).
And it’s beautifully made. The opening underwater sequences are gorgeously realized—the production design is by Daniela Strijleva and the cinematography by David Juan Bianchi and Kim White—and those set on land, particularly in the vividly drawn Portorosso, no less so.
The CGI character animation is unfailingly engaging as well, as is the voice work throughout, with young Tremblay, Grazer and Berman easily matching that of the adults (fans of Cohen, incidentally, will want to stay around for his post-credits reappearance; it’s a relatively long wait given all the names that roll by, but the scrolls include genial sketches of all the characters alongside them). There’s also a fittingly nostalgic score by Dan Romer, punctuated by an array of pop songs from the period.
Like “Soul” before it, “Luca” is premiering on the Disney+ streaming service rather than in theatres. That’s a pity, given the artistry of the pictures, but both of them—as well as “Wolfwalkers” on Apple+—stand in the sharpest possible contrast to the mediocrity of most animated features that regularly appear on the small screen, or the big one for that matter.