By Lynn Venhaus
Of all this summer’s films, “Luca” might be the one that gives you a serious case of wanderlust – and nostalgia for the summers of your youth.
The playful computer-generated animated feature sweeps us away into two exotic worlds – under the sea and on land – for a fun, fast-paced teenage adventure. You will wish Portorosso was real – not just a reference to Hayao Miyazaki‘s film “Porco Rosso” from 1992.
Set in a beautiful seaside town on the Italian Riviera, “Luca” is a sea monster-turned-little boy experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and scooter rides. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) shares adventures with his new best friend, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is also a sea monster, and meets Giulia (Emma Berman), who will change his life, and her fisherman father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), while he’s hiding from his fretful parents Daniela and Lorenzo (Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan). Can he still live in both worlds without fear?
Following a long line of Disney dreamers, Luca Paguro is a charmer – coming of age as he straddles his natural sea world and the picturesque fishing village he discovers during an escapade with his new best friend, the worldlier and more mischievous Alberto.
Luca herds goatfish by day, trying to stay safe, warned by his protective mother (Maya Rudolph) about dangers of the outside world. But he yearns to see what’s out there for himself. When he ventures above the surface, he appears to be a human, but once wet, he reverts to his sea monster scales.
With wide-eyed wonder and an insatiable curiosity, Luca wants to explore the vast universe that he is only now experiencing. It turns into an unforgettable summer on the sun-kissed shores of Italy, set in the ‘50s – captivating us in the grand time-honored tradition of a hero’s far-away journey.
The vivid animation matches the creators’ limitless imaginations, and the swift shapeshifting between the ‘human’ boys and the sea monsters is remarkable. During the credits, watercolor drawings, reminiscent of old picture books, dot the frames.
Pixar’s latest and 24th feature, “Luca,” isn’t as profound or ground-breaking as “Soul,” “Coco” or “Inside Out,” but is a pleasant excursion into a gorgeous nook of land-and-sea, as refreshing as an ocean breeze.
The characters, conceived by director Enrico Casarosa and co-writers Jesse Andrews (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Mike Jones (“Soul”), are distinguished by colorful personalities and exaggerated physical features – whether it’s a brawny dad bod with a thick mustache or a swaggering pompadoured bully in sunglasses.
The appealing voice cast imbues characters with warmth and humor, and particularly amusing are Sandy Martin, Mac’s Mom on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” as the saucy grandma, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the hulking gravel-voiced Uncle Ugo (stay for the credits for more on this imposing creature).
Tremblay, now age 14, conveys enthusiasm and amazement over everything Luca sees and does. The guileless Tremblay broke through in “Room” (2015) and has followed up with the earnest “Wonder” and the hilarious “Good Boys.” He is a natural fit for the sea creature-out-of-water Luca.
He pairs well with Jack Dylan Grazer, Eddie in the “It” movies, who is the headstrong Alberto, and Emma Berman as the smart and lively Giuilia. Their silly shenanigans recall vintage cartoons – and even “Stand By Me.”
Casarosa’s directorial debut was the lush moonlit “La Luna,” an animated Pixar short shown before “Brave” in 2012 and nominated for an Academy Award. Inspired by his childhood in Genoa for both the short and feature, he has infused this film with a marvelous sense of atmosphere.
Through a big-hearted approach, Casarosa has expanded on the themes of family, friends and community, while also bathing it in a gorgeous glow at nighttime. The lighting here is exquisite.
Cultural touches – on food, lifestyle and landscape – add to the film’s precise sense of style.
The music is another memorable aspect – Dan Romer’s score blends Italian opera, folk music and spirited instrumental pieces to amplify the jolly and jaunty elements.
An original story that may be more of a pastiche and feels like a beach read, “Luca” is an enchanting take on celebrating differences and youth friendships.
If you notice nods to “The Little Mermaid,” “Finding Nemo” and “Pinocchio,” so be it, but it also is an homage to Casarosa’s major influence Miyazaki — plus Fellini and other Italian cinema greats too.
Dive in and just have fun with it, an Italian ice optional.
“Luca” is a 2021 animated feature and comedy-adventure. Directed by Enrico Casarosa, it has voice work from Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli and Jim Gaffigan. Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence, it has a run time of 1 hour, 35 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A-. The film is streaming on Disney Plus beginning June 17 at no extra premium fee.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.