Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Throughout the years, Pixar Animations Studios has dwelled in the world's diverse cultures. We witnessed the scope and cuisines of France through a rat's perspective, journeyed through the Scottish highlands and its mythologies, and experienced Mexico's belief and celebration in the afterlife. No matter what direction the studio goes, Pixar will always continue expanding its creativity onto the world. In this case, we take a detour to Italy and the directorial debut of Pixar animator Enrico Casarosa.
Enrico Casarosa started his animation career as a background artist for a couple of Disney television series and as a storyboard artist for Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age before moving to Pixar. There, he was a story artist for the first two Cars films, Ratatouille, Up, and Coco. His most noteworthy work was his 2011 Oscar-nominated short film, La Luna. But now, Casarosa decided to take his Italian roots and incorporated them into Pixar's next full-length animated feature, Luca. Inspired by his childhood days in Genoa, Casarosa and Pixar worked hard to make this movie as unique as possible when comparing to other Pixar movies. Once again, plans for releasing it got delayed due to unexpected circumstances till it was decided to be streamed exclusively on Disney+ for free while other countries released it theatrically. So, did Casarosa prevail on what he envisioned?
A young sea monster boy (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) with the ability to change into a human on land discovers a seaside town and a new life-experiencing summer he'll never forget.
A Familiar Yet Well-Told Tale
Ever since the trailers and marketing were released, many have assumed that the story would seem to be the movie's weakest aspect. There's no other way to interpret this statement but: this is a literal fish-out-of-water story where the protagonist is curious about the outside world. In vice versa, the townspeople also have a prejudicial fear of the sea monsters lurking in the waters. We have all heard this type of tale before and it does have its predictable moments that one may expect.
However, in terms of practice, Pixar always finds a way to overshadow this type of story with a heavy emphasis more on the coming-of-age concept and theming revolving around its characters. Coincidentally enough, the idea and characters in this movie were more personally based on Casarosa's childhood and you can tell they were handled subtly through the writing, artistry, and acting. Another influence that this movie brought is a tribute to Studio Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki where they take the fantasy element and execute into a sense of wonder. In fact, the sea monster elements were loosely taken from Italian mythology and folklore, which benefit the metaphor for "being different".
Speaking of the theming, the movie has messages of friendship and the nostalgic feeling of childhood summer days. It can make you remember the good old days how you met your best friend and spent the days together. You sometimes would get into fights, but eventually, makeup in the end. Sometimes, you may have to move or leave and fear that you would never see your friend again. This movie captures exactly how anyone would feel reminiscing their childhood. On a side note, the concept of Luca and Alberto hiding their true identities is speculated to be an allegory for the LGBTQ community on how they feel and fear being socially accepted. It is a bold and progressive statement that Pixar knows how to decipher without being on the nose about it.
As for the humor, while some of it is typical fish-out-of-water jokes, there are legit and comedic moments involving the characters. The story would first turn people off, but after spending time with it, it is quite an enjoyable and relatable experience.
Colorful and Creative Italian Animation
When comparing the art direction of previous Pixar films, the animation in Luca was unique yet challenging to pull off. The animators took heavy influence from their research trip at Italian Riviera and magically craft the artistry to life.
Starting with the character designs, not only the storytelling captured Miyazaki's whimsy but also visually capture his hand-drawn and stop-motion styles well. The human characters are given a more simple, rounded look without giving too much detail and the character animation is more playful while still remaining down-to-earth as possible. The energy does kick up whenever the characters attempt to do a stunt or engage in a semi-action sequence. It is almost watching like a 2D animated movie. The sea monster designs are highly imaginative where the scales' colors pop against the blue waters and their hair is modeled after fish fins. There is even one creature that has skin so transparent that you can see its organs. When the movie has a humorous moment, the attempt of hiding their true forms does bring up good visual humor.
The worlds that each respective characters inhabited are full of color and bursting with life. The sea monsters' life under the ocean is a fascinating society where they live and act almost like humans. Their daily activities would include guarding and herding goatfish or treating crabs like pets for upcoming competitions. But, once we dry off onto the surface, we admire the vast and organic mountains of the Italian Riviera where you have the freedom to explore and perform the unthinkable. Afterward, we swim over to the town of Portorosso on the other side. This seaside town is atmospheric and takes place during the 1950s or 1960s decade to give it a timeless feel. Once you get past their history of alleged hatred of sea monsters, it is a lively town full of children playing around the fountain, people enjoying pasta, and riding Vespas across the elevated streets.
In addition, the movie would sometimes up the wonderous visuals whenever Luca has a fantasy sequence and would blend with 2-D watercolor and pastel-like backgrounds, almost similarly to La Luna. Even during the credits, we also see 2D sketches of the characters that translate well into the medium. The animation is truly a passionate highlight and Casarosa knew how to bring his Italian magic onto Pixar.
A Town Full of Land and Sea Creatures
As mentioned before, this movie was very personally based on Csasrosa's summer childhood and these characters throughout the movie definitely represent how both the director and the viewer would feel.
Our titular protagonist Luca Paguro is a young sea monster boy with a fascination with the world above his own yet fears about it at the same time after being warned constantly. Once he met Alberto, his life slowly changed, and learns about the endless possibilities around them. His new best friend and most developed character Alberto Scorfano is an independent sea monster who claims to know more of the surface world by collecting various objects and wishes for freedom by building a Vespa. However, their friendship is put to the test when Luca becomes more adjusted to the town life rather than they initially planned.
In the town of Portororosso, we have Giulia Marcovaldo, an easygoing adventurous girl who loves reading books yet doubts about the town's folklore. She lives with her intimidating yet loving fish-hunting father Massimo and his suspicious cat Machiavelli.
For the latter, the cat is the funniest character of the movie. For the rest of the cast, there are Luca's concerning yet caring parents Daniela and Lorenzo, Luca's secret supportive grandmother, the egotistical bully Ercole Visconti, his lackeys Cuccio and Guido, and Luca's eccentric uncle voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen. It is worth mentioning that the voice acting is solid, especially with Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer's chemistry delivering the power of the movie's friendship message.
While many of the characters are not complex, they give out a simple yet mellow charm that would, no pun intended, hook the viewer in. Whether your impression would be, there's no denying that will never forget these characters and understand how Casarosa felt during his youth.
Overall, Disney/Pixar's Luca is a heartwarming letter not just to Italian culture, but also to the true meaning of coming to age with childhood and friendship. Upon anyone's first impression, the story is unoriginal and predictable. But, thanks to Enrico Casarosa's direction, this movie was executed into a sense of astonishment with rich motifs, colorfully fun animation, and unforgettable characters. This is a must-watch for everyone. Kids, families, people that enjoy Italy, summer, and/or have a nostalgic connection. It is a shame that the move was close to being released theatrically. Then again, putting it on Disney+ for free was fair enough. But, in the end, it goes to show that Pixar is still a powerhouse studio and always takes its artistry to new levels. Have a fun memorable summer just like Luca did.