Directed by Enrico Casarosa.
Featuring the voice talents of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Marco Barricelli, Saverio Raimondo, Sandy Martin, Francesca Fanti, Gino D’Acampo, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
On the Italian Riviera, an unlikely but strong friendship grows between a human being and a sea monster disguised as a human.
At times, Luca (the latest from Disney-Pixar) feels like it’s headed in the direction of the all-too-familiar and dreaded “be yourself” animated feature. It’s not that it’s a bad message, more so the one that animated filmmakers overly rely on to punch up harmless child-friendly distraction material being able to say that they at least tried to teach a valuable lesson. Before going anything further, I assure you, Luca is never lousy or even mediocre; far from it. It’s also not necessarily a pacing issue because after having finished it, the flow and progression of the narrative are natural. However, the third act is markedly stronger, richer, and more emotionally resonant (the beautiful score from Dan Romer should remain a constant throughout award season whenever it arrives).
Once it becomes clear that Luca is more about the fear of being rejected for who you are instead of easily digestible encouragement to open up about oneself (plenty of animated features aren’t concerned with tackling pressing social commentary). It’s a story about identity as much as it is a well-written and gorgeously rendered tale of misfit friendship. Director Enrico Casarosa (using a script from Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones) is also aware of the powerful effect embracing true identity can have on those afraid to do the same, exhibited during a nuanced moment in the climax that, while something that has no bearing on the main story speaks volumes about the important message being sent.
The eponymous Luca (Room‘s Jacob Tremblay, giving a radiant and layered performance rivaling that breakthrough role) is a sea creature living underneath the Mediterranean Sea. His species is never defined, so it appears the art team was at liberty to get creative, digitally conjuring up colorful and scaly amphibious humanoids that resemble a cross between mermaids and seahorses. They indeed rose to the occasion. Nevertheless, Luca lives with his family, where he is put to work as a fish herder and forbidden by his parents (voiced by comedians Meyer Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan to hilarious effect as overprotective guardians), venturing out of the water and onto the beach bordering Portocello. The reason being is that humans hunt sea creatures, as shown during a quick prologue that also makes use of objects such as a gramophone to set the time alongside the place.
Luca is a good boy who listens and wouldn’t dare do such a thing (even if he has imaginatively realized daydreams about life on the surface). However, should he step out of line, he will be forced to live in the Deep with his oddball and physically transparent uncle occasionally in need of being punched in the heart to keep the pumping (also voiced by none other than Sacha Baron Cohen). By pure accident, Luca does stumble out of the sea and onto the Italian Riviera, naturally terrified due to familial fear-mongering, where he briefly encounters the lonely yet adventurous Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). This is where Luca quite literally becomes a fish out of water story, with Alberto teaching Luca how to stand up and walk. Strangely enough, that’s also about where that style of humor ends (neither of them flinches upon seeing a cat in town, for example), which is probably for the best given the narrative has more ambitious goals.
Alberto, also a sea creature, has nowhere to go and spends his days waiting for his father to return. He also has a lust for life that Luca shares, with the latter nervous and skeptical of exploring the unknown. While Luca wants to return to his family, he also gets roped into building a makeshift scooter with Alberto in hopes of traveling anywhere and everywhere, living life to the fullest. As to be expected, making a Vespa scooter from scratch (a properly functioning one) proves to be impossible, which takes the bonding buddies into Portocello, where they both make friends with fellow bullied outcast Giulia (voiced by the spirited Emma Berman) and learn of an annual triathlon for prize money that will allow them to purchase an authentic Vespa (obviously, one that’s dirty and broken down but nonetheless working).
What’s special about the camaraderie here is that very much in the way someone in real life can befriend someone that’s gay, bisexual, transgender, or possibly even disabled in some way without knowing, Giulia has no idea Luca and Alberto are fabled sea creatures. They all accept one another from the beginning, immediately starting a beautiful friendship. Still, genuine acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean people will fully be comfortable right away, peeling away more layers of themselves for those closest to them to see. With that said, a rift opens between Luca and Alberto, with the latter feeling Giulia (and the world at large) will never accept them and allow them to integrate into society.
Unsure of what will happen, they do their best to avoid getting splashed with water (admittedly, it initially feels contrived that a minimal amount of water will transform the boys back into sea creatures, but the final 30 minutes or so powerfully executed the nitpick as long gone), and especially looking suspicious around Giulia’s sea creature hunting father. The local bully also complicates matters with his unchecked nastiness, more feared by his hangout pals rather than sincerely liked. Some might find Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) a one-dimensional villain that exists as an obstacle for these protagonists, but that’s entirely the point; some individuals have no rhyme or reason for their hatred. He might not be a deep antagonist but is most definitely a believable one.
Humorous, charming, and equipped with that Pixar touch of being able to make anyone cry, Luca also embraces Italy (with top-notch CGI) in terms of everything from dazzling views, striking architecture, delicious cuisines (one of the triathlon stages involves a pasta eating contest where the competitors don’t know which kind will be served, allowing for preparation scenes where the filmmakers really get to embrace the food culture and show off a variety), and Summer weather practically bursting from the screen. Partially Italian myself, the characters at the center also deliver on the representation front with care and authenticity.
Luca is a bold take on friendship with emphasis on identity and refreshing faces telling the story. Like a crumbling Vespa on rough terrain, the proceedings start a little bumpy before smoothing out and soaring, capable of going anywhere and nailing the destination similar to the hopes and dreams of Luca and Alberto. It’s also not just for children, as people of all ages will likely find the film a source of strength regarding accepting and owning identity without fear.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com