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REVIEW – “Luca”: Pixar Starts Summer with Sweet, Bashful Friendship Story

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Set in a seaside town on the Italian Riviera, “Luca” is a coming-of-age story about a boy/sea monster (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, right) and his friend (Jack Dylan Grazer) experiencing a summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. CREDIT: DISNEY/PIXAR

In what appears a necessity as the theatrical marketplace continues to recover from the past year, the product doled out by the good-natured geniuses at Pixar has again been relegated to their parent’s streaming hub, Disney+. Personally, I cannot be too disappointed. However, once one catches first glimpse of the idyllic, peaceful, culturally delicious seaside town of Portorosso, any sort of strategy is eschewed, any doubts are tossed away, in favor of true scenery cinema. Almost like comfort food filmmaking, of which we are overdue. The lamp makers’ 24th feature, Luca, plays like the sweetest of comfort food. Straightforward, even simplistic. And that might not be such a bad thing, if the story is just right.

That may well depend on overall expectations. Me, personally, unless it is an established IP, my expectations remain neutral or tempered on any new Pixar title. Enrico Casarosa, a long time studio veteran whose claim to fame was the emotionally candid 2010 short La Luna, has risen his way up the ranks to confidently lead his first feature. Something like gelato, or pasta. A delicious plate of pasta on a summer’s day, with the warmth of the sun, and the smell of the ocean wafting about.

It is what lies beneath the surface where Casarosa’s personal tale ignites with little time spent on exposition. Always just the good stuff as we see youthful Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a sea monster living a simple life with farmer parents Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). Mirroring Little Mermaid dynamics sans royalty or singing, our title character is at that point in his short life where curiosity rules his brain, wondering just what is out there above the water.

The folks remind him regularly how nasty a record of accomplishment their kind has with humans, the latter prone to capturing them on sight. Luca’s unfazed by that, when a string of gadgets and gizmos aplenty lead him to an introduction with wild loner and fellow monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). The two become fast friends, recognizing their ability to turn human in the sunlight, and quickly back with a single splash of liquid, as their adventures lure them toward the mainland. And to the promise of newfound freedom. Neither of their parents will ever understand them, so why not try to see the world, look for a place to belong.

Such questions, whether profound or not, stay very open for a broad interpretation. The film’s screenplay, penned by Mike Jones and Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) does not prod too deep. Its clear themes of self-identity, societal fear, and bonds forged by like-minded friendship are not anything new in animated filmmaking. In true Pixar fashion, however, the formula does go for an upside down spin, presenting a naturally dreamlike sheen in a locale that looks nearly unreal by design, one inspired by Casarosa’s home town of Genoa. Albeit with a touch of the old school folklore he knew as a kid, whereby to be a little different from others alludes to assuming a secondary form. The sea monsters somewhat fall in that category of hybrid creatures cinematic myth have immortalized over time. Any manner of parallels to Miyazaki’s Ponyo, to name one example, might only be coincidental, but also distinctly striking to a fault.

The underwater world we are surrounded in nudges that traditional spirit of the Neolithic Revolution firmly to mind. We don’t get much time to invest in Luca’s home life before his absent-minded getaway; his family, on the other hand, they’ll follow him to Portorosso, track him down before he’s shipped off to a summer away with senile Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen). Rudolph and Gaffigan are a certain delight sharing the screen together as the overbearing parents. They may be too easy to mistake for any pair of loose-fitting sidekicks lifted from any Richard Lester film, if the amount of light gag work is an indicator. While they run rampant, Luca and Alberto get into their own hijinks on the way to venture further off into the wild. Preferably with the aid of a factory-made Vespa. It is a complicated path to a simple goal, the pair embroiled in a local triathlon with local girl Giulia (Emma Berman), the seeds of which plant the film’s very loose narrative, a minimal thing to carry the momentum forward.

That’s rather a second banana opposed to what matters most, the rightly platonic chemistry between our two leads. Yes, of course, the early marketing did invoke some cozy flashbacks to the slightly flawed Call Me by Your Name; I blame the scenery for that, by which production designer Daniela Strijleva has earned high kudos. Needless to say, it is a basic, neutral connection both Luca and Alberto carry, lifting themselves up, and fueling infrequent spurs of deception, while negating each other’s self-doubt in trying new things. Above all else, building the gumption to stay authentic to themselves, and to a misunderstanding community leaning hard on mythical stereotypes. Rather refreshing to see them unfazed by subtle anti-sea monster signage around town business and the like. Part of why Grazer and Tremblay are so confident, genuine even with their performances, matching the strengths, and more importantly weaknesses of their characters. Berman steals the show, however. Every moment her fiery redhead’s on screen, she does so with a cheerful bluntness not unlike one of Charles Schultz’s best-known comic heroines (either Lucy or Sally, dependent on the scene).

While last year’s psychoanalytical Soul may have kept Pixar’s creative peaks high and insurmountable, and six months later, it remains deserving of those qualities as one of their final triumphs, Luca runs a little quieter for a crowd-pleaser. Unlike The Good Dinosaur, which lacked follow-through amidst its lush visuals, Casarosa’s own personal escapades make for an enthralling adventure as large as the theater screens it was robbed. And as cartoony and zippy as some of the other mid-upper level fare we have seen out of the animation house. With a charming musical prose to boot, as Dan Romer’s bouncy score interweaves a few obscure pieces of 60s Italian pop.

As mentioned, Luca never dares to go too deep underwater, too far, or too complex. Were it a different director or voice in the studio’s roster, only then would it be cause for concern. However, Enrico Casarosa is certainly a diamond in the rough, his unique storytelling angle leaving plenty room to splash down hard, move freely through its 95 minutes, and accomplish an ending most bittersweet, just like the end of summer itself. Hesitations aside, that finale, after what our accidental hero seeks to accomplish is a satisfactory, smile-heavy invocation of that personal authenticity. As an adult, its central themes may play to our sense of nostalgia, the freeness of growing up. The kids in the audience might just have more to discover, and to learn, about building a lasting friendship without fault or fear. Let that be the takeaway from Luca, if not also being one fun ode to summer at its basic level.

PS: Please let the running catchphrase “Silencio Bruno!” evolve into the hip saying with everyone this summer. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Luca streams on Disney+ beginning June 18, with a warning to make sure and stay through the credits; rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence; 95 minutes.