The spirit of transient youth ripples through Pixar’s latest and it’s infectious. From Enrico Casarosa – whose La Luna surely only narrowly missed out on the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2011 – Luca is lovely. Certainly, in its opening act, the film could almost pass for un cortometraggio itself. A self-professed homage to Federico Fellini, Luca pays tribute to those halcyon days of never ending Summer. In a golden haze and fifties aesthetic, Casarosa finds adventure. Most winning is the film’s homespun quality. It’s in the memory born identity of the Italian’s intrinsically personal conceit but also very literally so in the fact that much of the production was completed in the animators’ own homes. You’d never guess.
As has, of late, often been Pixar’s Achilles heel, Jesse Andrews (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) and Mike Jones’ (Soul) script is sweet but less unique than the proposition and potential. In brief, this is the story of sea monsters who transform into so-called land monsters when out of water. It’s a coming of age romp very specifically framed in the fish out of water narrative. Jacob Tremblay voices Luca, a naive young goatfish herder, dreaming big in the depths of the Italian Riviera. Parents Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) fear life above the water and are right to. The anxiety is mutual. In the local town of Portorosso, the humans hunt sea monsters for a living. And yet, the temptation is as real here for Luca as it was three decades ago for Disney’s littlest mermaid.
Enter Alberto (Shazam’s Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca’s bridge to life above the water – and the perils of puberty it represents. Alberto is two years Luca’s senior. His voice is deeper, his cherry already popped. It is Alberto who leads Luca to the surface and he who teaches our young hero to walk and explore once there. The pair bond quickly over the image of a vintage Vespa Alberto has pasted to the rubble wall of his castle hideout on Isola del Mare. With boyish abandon, Luca and Alberto while away the hours attempting to build their own Vespa from scraps of wood. How easy it is to picture a young Casarosa doing just that in his own childhood.
With each new attempt, Luca grows more attached to life on land and his parents’ suspicions intensify. It is when they discover what their son has been doing – and threaten him with a trip to stay with his ghastly Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen) – that Luca flees to Portorosso, with Alberto in tow. There, new friends and dreams await, not to mention a triathlon to win and local bully to beat. It’s an unfortunate but sadly inevitable creative decision that sees said slimeball voiced by one of Luca’s only native Italians. Of the other two, one is an overweight chef and the other a wrought schoolmistress. The majority are American. Gee whiz, wouldn’t you know it.
Though retaining Pixar’s breathtaking penchant for detail, the animation style of Luca veers more toonish than elsewhere in the studio’s canon. There’s debt to Aardman in the wide eyes and button noses of the film’s humans and something almost Ghibli in the design of the film’s sub marine life. It’s no coincidence that Casarosa had his crew rewatch the works of Hayao Miyazaki prior to embarking on Luca. Even the name ‘Portorosso’ recalls the similarly metamorphosing Porco Rosso. Also Italian set.
More than the sum of its inspirations, Luca enjoys its fair share of visual verve, with episodes of pure creativity coursing through scenes in which dreams conquer reality. There are plenty of these. The repetition would be too much were the opportunity for invention so thoroughly seized. It’s born of a sheer love for animation.