Pixar's ‘Luca’ Is A Summery, Subtly Surreal Treat Unlike Anything The Studio Has Done Before [Review]

Back in 2012, Pixar released “Brave,” the offbeat “princess movie” set in the Scottish Highlands, and with it came “La Luna.” After watching the 7-minute short, “La Luna,” it was hard to focus on the feature. “La Luna” is one of the very best Pixar shorts, bristling with big-hearted charm, dynamic themes about family togetherness and the importance of a job well done, and draped in a distinctive style that set it apart not just from other Pixar shorts but from the features as well. Now, ten years after the short debuted, the filmmaker behind “La Luna,” Enrico Casarosa, has finally unveiled his Pixar feature debut, “Luca.” And like “La Luna,” it is magical, emotional, and unlike anything the studio has made before. If “La Luna” announced Casarosa as one of the most distinctive, original storytellers at the studio, “Luca” confirms it.

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“Luca” takes place in postwar Italy, in the waters of a small fictional town called Portorosso. It’s in these waters that a species of sea monster live, work, and have families. (Their look is like a cute version of the beasts seen in “Creature from the Black Lagoon” or “The Shape of Water.”) One young member of a sea monster family, Luca (Jacob Tremblay), yearns for an escape from his humdrum existence. That escape presents itself in the form of a chance encounter with Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow sea monster about his age who has taken up residence on a nearby island. Alberto teaches Luca that when he comes out of the water, he transforms into a human and can walk among them (if he goes back in the water or gets splashed like a gremlin, he reverts to his aquatic form). Together, the pair make a bold plan to visit Portorosso, even though it’s a small community obsessed with fishing (and deeply suspicious of creatures of the deep, thanks to local legends about sea monsters), where they will obtain a Vespa and travel around the rest of the human world. Also on the agenda: eating tons of gelato and pasta.

As far as high concept, hugely adorable Pixar set-ups go, “Luca” is one of the very best. It presents a relatable conundrum (Luca’s overprotective parents, played by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan, forbid his attempted adventuring), steeped in the framework of a classical fable (along the lines of something like “The Little Mermaid”), with just enough modern flourishes and thematic complexities to keep it compelling and contemporary. If this clever conceit were all that “Luca” made special, it would be pretty phenomenal. Thankfully, though, there’s much more beneath the surface.

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For one, there’s the unique look of the film. Casarosa has said that he was inspired by a variety of animation styles, including the stop-motion animation of British studio Aardman and, of course, the traditional animation of Studio Ghibli and its marquee filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. (Everything from early animated series “Future Boy Conan” to the more recent feature “Ponyo” is referenced; the town itself is a nod to the studio’s 1992 film “Porto Rosso.”) The characters themselves have a much more exaggerated, cartoony look to them. Their movements are often clipped or pushed in ways that are very different from a traditional Pixar feature, which often errs on the side of realism.

“Luca” is more interested in emotional truth, in the way that something feels as much as how it looks. And the somewhat intensified stylization never gets in the way of those emotions; if anything, it heightens them. It also allows Casarosa and his team to push the envelope in terms of intensity while still maintaining a family-friendly PG-rating (in particular, there’s a scene where a local bully gets physical that would have been way more startling without this aesthetic). There’s a gentle surrealism to the film, both in the way it looks and in the storytelling that occasionally drifts to the dreamier territory (Casarosa has also cited Federico Fellini as an influence). Unlike “Soul,” which separated the fantastical realm from our own, “Luca” is happy to make the real-world way more magical.

There’s also the relationship at the heart of “Luca” that sets it apart. Much has been made of the movie’s similarities, at least superficially, to “Call Me By Your Name,” another coming-of-age tale set in a sunshine-y Italy. At a recent press conference, they poo-pooed the similarities altogether. But here’s the thing – the comparison is not far-fetched. It’s never explicitly implied that the sea creatures have feelings for one another, but their relationship is clearly more romantic than any other mismatched same-sex Pixar duo. And while the filmmakers claim that there’s nothing there, a clear sensuality exists in how the characters interact, in their glances and touches. This “otherness” is also built into the thematic bedrock of the movie. “Luca” is a tale about hiding who you are from those who love you (like the human family the boys fall in with, including a young girl that creates friction between Alberto and Luca) because of overriding fears that you’ll be rejected or disowned. It’s acceptance, not a shiny new Vespa (or even a badly worn Vespa) that the boys so desperately crave – from each other, from their families, and from the community around them. Metaphorically, this scenario can be applied to many experiences; the specificity of Alberto and Luca’s relationship makes it universal.

The relative simplicity of “Luca’s” story, especially coming so soon after the weightier, more philosophical “Soul,” lends it this unique power. There are moments where you will undoubtedly tear up just from the sheer beauty of what you are seeing, not only the animation (with its top-notch design work, lighting, and virtual photography) but the pure joyousness of the story itself. This movie will fill your heart up. Casarosa is an artist with a true perspective, fearless in his creative impulses and limitless in his compassion, and “Luca” is a pure expression of these sensibilities.

It is worth noting, however, that “Luca” doesn’t deviate from the Pixar tradition in one key area – it has an absolutely devastating ending that will leave you wrecked and likely sobbing, looking more like a melted puddle of gelato than a human being … or a humanoid sea monster. [A] 

“Luca” debuts on Disney+ On June 18.