Luca (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Pixar’s little Italian summer retreat

Pixar animation film “Luca” is a little crisp piece of work with some nice local period flavor to be appreciated. Although it is rather modest compared to Pixar Animation Studios’ more ambitious films such as “Wall-E” (2008) or “Inside Out” (2015), the film is still fairly funny and charming thanks to its solid handling of story and characters, and I willingly overlooked its several weak points as feeling enlivened and refreshed more than once during my viewing.

The story, which is clearly inspired a bit by “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, begins with establishing the peaceful underwater environment of a young sea monster named Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay). Bored with his daily marine life mostly consisting of taking care of fishes in a family farm, Luca has been quite curious about the world above water, but he is afraid of going up there because of the danger of being exposed to humans, and his parents Daniella (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) frequently emphasize to him on how dangerous the world above water is, though he remains very curious about it as collecting a few human stuffs fallen into the water.

And then there comes an unexpected change through Alberto Scorfano (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), an older sea monster boy who has lived alone on a tiny nearby island. Thanks to Alberto, Luca comes to learn that his appearance can be changed into that of a seemingly normal human boy whenever his body is dried, and he soon has lots of fun as spending more time with Alberto on the island, who is certainly willing to show and tell Luca about how awesome the world above water is in many aspects.

Of course, it does not take much time for Luca’s parents to realize what is going on, and they are not so pleased about that. They eventually decide to send their son to a rather gruesome uncle who has been living alone in a dark deep-sea area, and, needlessly to say, that is the last thing Luca wants to do right now. When Alberto suggests that they should run away to a port village not so far from their island, Luca understandably hesitates at first, but, of course, the risk of being exposed to humans at any point is more acceptable to him than staying in that deep-sea area with his horrible uncle for the rest of the summer.

Once they come into the village without getting noticed, Luca and Alberto soon find themselves amazed and excited by various human stuffs they have never seen before, and director Enrico Casarosa, an Italian animator who previously directed Pixar short film “La Luna” (2011), and his crew members delight us with vivid and colorful mood and details to be savored. The port village in the film is your typical postcard Italian village during the 1950-60s, and the references to a number of several notable films during that era such as Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (1954) will surely bring some little smiles to you if you are a seasoned movie buff like me (I would be more delighted if they also included Luchino Visconti’s “La Terra Trema” (1948), though).

Anyway, our two boys subsequently come across a feisty girl named Giulia Marcovaldo (voiced by Emma Berman), who has been preparing a lot for winning at the upcoming local triathlon competition whose first prize is a considerable amount of money. Because they need the money for getting a motorcycle they have coveted, Luca and Alberto come to join Giulia as a team, and Giulia gladly lets them stay in a house where she and her fisherman father Massimo (voiced by Marco Barricelli) live along with a very grumpy cat.

While quite predictable at times, the film keeps engaging us as deftly swinging back and forth between comedy and drama. While the story certainly generates a number of amusing moments from how Luca and Alberto manage to maintain their disguise despite getting nearly exposed to others more than once, the situation becomes a bit more complicated as Luca’s parents also sneak into the village for finding their son, and we get several uproarious moments from their hurried search for their son. In addition to bringing some gravitas to the dynamic relationship development between Luca and Alberto, the movie also makes some wholesome points on the fear and prejudice associated with just being different, and I am pretty sure that there are many young and adult audiences who will appreciate that a lot for good reasons.

Although the final act of the story will not surprise you that much as you can already discern how and when the conflicts in the story are resolved as expected, the film does earn the whole gamut of emotions filling up the finale at least, and we come to admire more of how effortless the overall result is with the fabulous score by Dan Romer, who previously drew our attention for his rich breakthrough work for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012). In case of the main voice cast members, Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer complement each other well with Emma Bergen holding her own place well between them, and Maya Rudolph, Saverio Raimondo, Jim Gaffigan, and Sacha Baron Cohen have each own little fun with their respective parts.

In conclusion, “Luca” looks rather subpar compared to the best works from Pixar Animation Studios, but it is at least not as bland and disappointing as “The Good Dinosaur” (2015), and it is certainly better than most of many other Hollywood blockbuster animation films out there. Pixar may take a leave this time, but, anyway, it did a good job of enticing us to be relaxed together, so I will not grumble for now.

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