Disney and Pixar's Luca (2021)
Sometimes the simplest stories are the ones that resonate most. Disney and Pixar’s Luca, helmed by Italian director and writer Enrico Casarosa, flows with breezy summertime vibes. At its core is a wholesome friendship between two boys who share an appetite for discovery, imagination, and fun. Set in the seaside town of Portorosso on the Italian Riviera, newfound friends Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) dream of a whole new world. Being sea creatures, there’s an entire universe beyond the water that they don’t know about and want to explore. But their dreams are threatened by the town’s collective fear of sea monsters. Worried that Luca will tempt unfortunate fate by venturing onto the surface one too many times, his mother swears on sending him to the bottom of the ocean for the rest of the summer. But Luca sneaks off with Alberto to join the “human town”. Using their ability to become humans when on land, the boys embark on an unforgettable adventure to Portorosso, a place they call Vespa town. Anchored by a sweet friendship, Luca is an adorable fish-out-of-water story with a big heart.
Enrico Casarosa, writer-director of the Pixar short La Luna, carries the magic of that coming-of-age fable into his first full-length feature. At the heart of Luca is a young boy finding his own way in the midst of fearful surroundings, with the help of a blossoming friendship. Alberto encourages Luca’s first experience on land, and eventually teaches him how to conquer his fears through inner confidence. Luca learns the weight of Alberto’s go-to phrase “Silencio Bruno,” a self-affirmation to silence inner doubt and an antidote for whenever they’re about to take a risk. The story builds on a strong foundation of friendship and acceptance, which gives the characters an emotionally resonating arc in the final act that sees Luca jump into the deep end and put himself out there to meet Alberto halfway. The journey to personal victory is a rocky road. It’s the journey these boys go on together that makes this film so beautifully endearing.
Luca succeeds at conveying a summery, adventurous vibe throughout. The story captures the excitement of making a new friend, having the time of your life in fleeting moments that melt quickly into memories, and breaking away from your family home to go off on new adventures. The particular adventure Luca and Alberto embark on is fueled by a love for Vespas. Having tried and failed to make one of their own, they set their sights on the real thing in Portorosso: a shiny red Vespa belonging to town bully Ercole Visconti (voiced by Saverio Raimondo). He’s a five-time winner of the Portorosso Cup: a triathlon of swimming, biking, and eating lots of pasta. Ercole embodies the slimy, arrogant personality of self-imposed greatness. He loves nothing more than belittling competition, including young Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman), an energetic underdog gearing up for another solo attempt at ending his winning streak. When she sees Ercole swarm around Luca and Alberto, two new faces in “his town,” she jumps to their defense. Just like that, a friendship trio is born. With the help of Giulia’s initially reluctant fisherman dad Massimo (voiced by Marco Barricelli), the trio form an underdog team in the competition. Giulia has a great introduction to the film. Her role in the story becomes an endearing one, full of understanding and empathy as she gets to know two kids who also feel different from everyone else. Rather than oversaturate the plot and twist the film in different directions, the filmmakers take a clear and simple route to tell the story. Luca explores just how delicate it can be to navigate through friendships, especially at a time of discovering your strengths and building your confidence while feeling the pressures of conformity. In this case, the horrifying reputation sea monsters have in Portorosso is enough for the boys to fiercely maintain their deeply held secret, but at what cost? The story builds up to an emotional climax that tests their friendship.
Beyond the themes that make the story resonate, just as much care and detail are infused in the world-building around the characters. The seaside town of Portorosso is a beaut. Gorgeous animation splashed with vibrant colours, heart melting references to features of Italian culture, and idiosyncratic dream sequences make Luca one of the most beautifully crafted Pixar films to date. The dreamy moments in particular are a great way to show how vivid Luca and Alberto’s imaginations are. Everything they envision in their heads, they recite with sparkling enthusiasm, and the animation matches that energy. The detailed worlds crafted underwater and on land are stunning to look at, and the transitions between both settings are seamless. It’s a visual treat when the two worlds collide, as they do when two sea monsters passing as humans try to dodge water and don’t always succeed. The animators create a lovely portrait down to the tiniest details, from an Italian scopa card to a quaint tomato garden. In addition to visuals, the voice work plays a large part in bringing this place to life. Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer could not have been more energetic and heartfelt. Everyone in the supporting cast also does accomplished work; a few fun additions are Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan voicing Luca’s parents, Daniela and Lorenzo Paguro.
Luca shines with classic adventure vibes; the characters are thrown into an exciting experience fueled by the risky undertaking of dreaming big. Luca and Alberto dare to dream. It’s subtly established early on that winning the Portorosso Cup would be worth a lot more than a Vespa. As the boys jump into the deep end, meeting characters along the way who either help or hurt the process, they discover that inner work and team work make the dream work. As one of the characters mentions, “some will never accept them, but some will, and Luca seems to find the good ones.” As the beautiful and emotional ending demonstrates, the victory of their journey extends far beyond the triathlon finish line. The friendship between Luca and Alberto gives the film a wholesome arc. They help each other address their most personal inner fears and embrace each other’s identities. The finish line is a pit stop to an entire new world that awaits them, and they each discover a piece of themselves to explore. For Luca, to attend school as an open book and be accepted as a sea creature. For Alberto, to experience a father figure in a way by staying behind to help Giulia’s father with fishing.
The storytelling creates something so winning and charming within a smaller scale. The simplicity of its approach is what makes Luca work so magically. The story really crystalizes what is most important to the protagonists and makes room for their friendship to take the film to new places. Resonating messages about acceptance and self-discovery shine through. Luca holds its own in a sea of highly regarded top tier Pixar films and wholeheartedly succeeds as a charming underdog story. It’s short, sweet, and a sincere joy to watch. Luca is a sunny delight that, underneath its simple surface, makes a big splash with an emotionally satisfying conclusion.