The central theme of Pixar’s latest feature, Luca, is the obtaining of knowledge — the realization of how liberating and sometimes painful such an acquisition can be. It’s a movie that understands the insight of how everyone always has something to learn. Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a kid who finds himself in a strange new land, must master its mystifying rules and traditions to survive. He has an impulsive friend, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose know-it-all swagger is something of an affectation: Like Luca, he’s lonely and adrift in a world that turns out to be bigger, scarier and more wondrous than either of them could have imagined. And it’s a world that, as rendered by the many Pixar animators, is imagined with customary ingenuity and bright-hued splendor (something that hurts to not be able to see in a theater). As directed by Enrico Casarosa, the film’s most exquisite visual creation here is Portorosso, a fictional village on the Italian Riviera. In the directors’ hands, it’s a place that plays host to a parade of sloped, cobblestoned streets filled with bicycles and Vespas and homes primed with kitchens preparing pasta and seafood.
Such seafood is provided by the town’s many fisherman, who work the surrounding waters with harpoons at the ready, waiting to encounter one of the fearsome sea monsters rumored to dwell the waters. Luca both confirms and debunks those rumors in its opening minutes, plunging beneath the surface and into a neighborhood of underwater dwellers whose webbed and scaly humanoid bodies might well seem fearsome at first glance. But within seconds of meeting Luca and his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan), it’s clear that there’s nothing remotely monstrous about him or the family sitcom he initially seems to be inhabiting. Fortunately, Luca enters bolder territory at precisely the moment Luca himself does. In a scene that brings to mind Pinocchio experiencing his first moments of sentience, Luca swims to the surface and discovers a world and body of wonderment. Outside his aquatic home, his scales, fins and tail magically vanish and he takes on human form. Every sea creature like him possesses these adaptive powers of disguise, including his new friend, Alberto, who’s been living above the surface for a while and gives Luca a crash course of walking, direct sunlight and other dry-land happenings.
This makes Luca a literal fish-out-of-water narrative, governed in the classic Pixar tradition by whimsical yet rigorously observed ground rules. One of which is that a splash of water will temporarily restore Luca and Alberto (or parts of them) to their underwater forms — a shapeshifting conceit that allows for a lot of seamlessly visualized slapstick. Early on, at least, the two friends have little to fear as they run around a deserted isle, basking in the sunshine and dreaming of future adventures on the open road. Only when their curiosity gets the better of them do they muster the courage to sneak into Portorosso, risking exposure and even death at the hands of sea-fearing locals. Various farcical complications ensue within the film’s overly busy plot, all enacted by a winning array of supporting players. These include a gruff but hospitable fisherman, Massimo (Marco Barricelli), and his plucky young daughter, Giulia (Emma Berman), who persuades Luca and Alberto to join her team in the local triathlon. That contest, whose events include swimming, biking and pasta eating, provides Luca with a conventional narrative structure and an easily booable villain named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo).
Ercole’s last name is Visconti, one of countless movie allusions that is tucked into the margins of the frame in Luca, most of which will prove to be candy for lovers of Italian cinema in particular. There’s a boat named Gelsomina, a glimpse of Marcello Mastroianni, an echo of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, and a whole subplot devoted to fetishizing the Vespa. And those are just the explicit references. When Luca was announced, more than a few people wondered if Pixar has made an animated riff on Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s drama about the pleasures of first love and the lush Italian countryside. And in some ways they actually have, and in others, they haven’t. Like most kid-centric studio animation, Luca has little time for romance and no room for sexuality. Luca and Alberto’s bond, though full of intense feeling and subject to darker undercurrents of jealousy and betrayal, is as platonic as the odd-couple pairings of Buzz and Woody, Marlin and Dory. And yet the specific implications of Luca and Alberto’s journey, which forces them to hide their true identities from a world that fears and condemns any kind of otherness, are as clear as water — too clear, frankly, to even be classified as subtext. Luca is about the thrill and the difficulty of living transparently — and the consolations that friendship, kindness and decency can provide against the forces of ignorance and violence.
Liberating oneself from those forces is a matter of individual and collective responsibility, and Luca is nuanced enough to understand that everyone shoulders that responsibility differently. Luca’s lovably bumbling helicopter parents, must let go and loosen up, but their instinctive caution is hardly misplaced. Alberto’s reckless attitude offers an admirable corrective, but that fearlessness is shown to mask a deeper sort of denial, an insularity that refuses to consider the full scope of the world’s possibilities. What makes Luca this story’s titular hero is that he’s able to absorb the best of what his friends and family pour into him; though small and lean, he stands at the point where their best instincts and deepest desires converge. In a similar vein, Luca the movie looks slight, especially compared to the more recent, extravagant Pixar entries. And unlike those films, this one aims more to be charming rather than mind-blowing. Instead of large philosophical ambition, this is a diverting, somewhat familiar story of finite visual craft — the orange glow of Mediterranean sunsets; the narrow streets and craggy escarpments; the evocations of a particular milieu. This a deft, more surefooted film when compared to the other recent Pixar entries, one whose subtle depths lie in the lingering emotions. It’s a movie that’s big in most of the important ways. Soaked in the delights of the Italian coast, Luca is a film build upon a sweet simplicity; its melancholy gentle and its intimacy fraught with a genuine sensation of feeling.
Luca is available to stream on Disney+