“Luca,” Pixar and Disney’s newest summer streaming adventure, is literally the proverbial fish, or should I saw, sea monster out of water scenario that rarely fails to connect and engage us all whole heartedly. We have all, I can pretty much guarantee, felt this way at one point of time or another (and if we haven’t, well, that’s an incredible privilege, and shame, I imagine), and here, nestled inside this beautifully crafted animated charmer for our post pandemic summer “coming-out” party, the air is as simple and as sweet as an Italian sea breeze. “Così bella“, one would have to say of this sweet simple story, created with care on a very fascinating and smart conceptualization, and painted with the broad loving strokes of friendship and acceptance. Drenched in an utterly whimsical construct centered on the cute existence of sweet natured sea monsters that briefly become human on dry land, the ultimate big game is not as surprising or original once we get past the initial concept.
One young sea monster by the name of Luca, voiced superbly by Jacob Tremblay (2016’s “Room“) has anxious curiosity about the human world far beyond his tight knit familial community, where he adoringly herds sheep-like fish, and is constantly lectured about the dangers of what lies in the human world just beyond those limits. He is warned by his mother, most emphatically (and adoringly) that the men in that Italian coastal town of Portorosso see them as dangerous, and only want to do them harm. She’s right in that notion, as we soon find out. It is much safer to stay underwater, close by your family, and far from those spear carrying humans. But as it is always meant to be, the tide changes when he swims into a new friend, a braver and enthusiastic Alberto, wonderfully voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer (2019’s “Shazam!“) who dares him to take that step forward into the new dry world. The obvious next step, wonderfully created on that beach, presents itself as it naturally should.
It’s a solid, almost foolproof idea that works its magic on us immediately, as it has many times before. Safety equals boredom, and the surface, and everything his new exciting friend shows him, is just too darn cool to ignore including that crazy Italian triathlon construct. Once his eyes have been opened to a Vespa-fueled freedom, there is no turning back. Luca must find out all there is to know and learn, no matter how scared he might be. But these too boys are not like everyone else in town, and if those town people, and their newly formed pseudo-family find out what Alberto and Luca truly are, spears will most likely be thrown. The set-up fueled a whole lot of per-opening chatter within the web world. Could this Pixar creation be something far more dynamic and progressive that what it first appears to be? Is “Luca” about to take on racism, prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, or is it going to only suggest those ideas in a more simplistic abstract? Could this be a coming-out story of young boys finding acceptance in the real world when their authentic selves are unmasked? So many questions.
The parallels are all there; the young curious boys with their perfectly curled hair leaving behind family in a new bigger city, and their strong minded female fellow-underdog who takes them under her protective wing and embraces their wacky quirkiness. I mean, really. Sounds like the beginning of “It’s a Sin,” if you ask me. As well as all those other symbols and signposts that are laid out for us all to see; the troublesome violent bully (Saverio Raimondo), and the one-armed ulter-masculine fisherman father (Marco Barricelli) of the feisty girl wonder who naturally becomes the two boys’ best friend, protector, and eye opener to the world that surrounds them. And we can’t ignore Maya Rudolph (2011’s “Bridesmaids“) and Jim Gaffigan (‘Bob’s Burgers‘) in the the roles of Luca’s parents certainly signaling a conceptualization that could have been mind-blowing if it really played out in that way directly. But it doesn’t. Pixar plays it safe, and if the intentions were there, “Bravo” sort of, as the metaphors still ring true and the ideas are well formed. But “Luca” plays it safe and dry inside a friendship and acceptance modifier that delivers heartfelt connection to the idea of difference, without daring to bring any romance or sexuality anywhere near.
“We underdogs need to stick together,” says the girl wonder, Giulia Marcovaldo, voiced spectacularly by Emma Berman (2020’s “Go! Go! Cory Carson“). And we all want to join her team. Director Enrico Casarosa (2011’s “La Luna“) dones an allegorical stance, crafting a tale about a wonderfully engaging pack of underdogs sticking together. The two boys, destined to be the best of friends, challenge themselves to discover and explore this other world, as they also try to figure out who they are and what they want truly from life. Sexuality is not going to be part of this misfit concept, but friendship and devotion to one another, along with the ultimate importance of parental attachment and care, flies high and strong like fish in the sky of “Luca.”
The beautiful dreamy world of “Luca” finds its solid footing and bikes hard with it to the lovingly tender end. It doesn’t register as deeply as I had dreamed it might, but the engagement is pure, and ideas, sweet and well intended. The visuals, especially on dry land, delivery wonder and amazement, and the story, as written by Jesse Andrews (2016’s “Margot vs. Lily‘) and Mike Jones (2020’s “Soul“) find heart and acceptance inside the land monsters. The dynamics will not really surprise, but the telling is tender and kind.
The montages of the naive and innocent Vespa worldview drenched in curiosity are dreamy and fun, and I never found myself feeling cynical or annoyed. It’s not as deep as some other better Pixar creations like “UP“, “Inside Out“, or “Soul“, but for a summer’s eve, it’s the sweetest of Italian desserts. And that’s a pretty tasty treat if I do say so myself.
We could sit back and look at this charming fable through the eyes of immigration, sexuality, or even race, but Pixar really just wants us to bath in its warm Italian glory of simple storytelling, come rain or shine. Does it make its subtle point? Yes, and it also delights, even within the utterly generic overall story.
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