On a hot summer day, two middle-school boys meet while scavenging for “treasures” like bike gears and handlebars. They chat about (what else?) how cool scooters are, combine their found spare parts, and get to work on their own makeshift motorless Vespa. Naturally, they test out their rough-and-ready vehicle by taking turns crashing it down a steep hill.
Released this past week on Disney Plus worldwide, Pixar’s “Luca” has some fantastical elements, but it’s essentially an old-fashioned story about friendship among children pursuing shared goals. Tomboyish Giulia completes the triad of pre-adolescents who band together to win the tongue-in-cheek Italian version of a triathlon: cycling, swimming, and pasta-eating.
A five-year project for 50-year-old director Enrico Casarosa and a team of artists, he based the story on his own life growing up on the Italian Riviera. In particular, a childhood friend named Alberto helped him break out of shyness and timidity, explore the world, and pursue his dreams.
“I grew up as a little fish every summer,” he said in a recent interview. “I had the luck of meeting my best friend Alberto when I was 11. He had a ton of passion and was consciously testing his own fears. These friendships help us find ourselves, which is really the heart of this story.”
Discontent with such innocence and minimalism, mainstream outlets have pressed their own interpretation of the two boys’ friendship. Following early buzz about “Luca” including LGBT plotlines after an early trailer, writer-director Casarosa insisted: “We really willfully went for a pre-pubescent story. This is all about platonic friendships.”
But for an entertainment industry celebrating pride month, this mattered little.
Why does absolutely everything need to be sexualized? These are like 10 year old kids and, as expected, there was no romance in the film either way. Stop it.
— Daniel De Vivo (@DanielDeVivo) June 27, 2021
The truth is, anyone familiar with “Tom Sawyer” or “The Sandlot” will resonate with the simple themes and refreshingly low-stakes plot of “Luca.” To enjoy lavish seaside landscapes with nary a superhero, princess, or wizard in sight — it’s a breath of fresh saltwater air.
Making A Splash
The film’s fantasy conceit — that Luca, his family, and friend Alberto are sea monsters who take on human form when walking on land — has several inspirations, starting with the director’s boyhood summers “as a fish” and the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
Casarosa also calls it a “love letter” to the coastal Cinque Terre region in northwest Italy. “These small towns on the rocks are hanging on for dear life, looking like they crawled out of the sea,” he said. “That’s [where I got] the idea: what if there were sea monsters here?”
A fixture at Pixar Animation Studios for the past 15 years, the Italian-born animator has been involved in their speculative storytelling about talking fish, a flying house lifted by colorful balloons, and a furry rat who runs a five-star French restaurant. These imaginative elements became scaffolding for stories about finding purpose, overcoming grief, and other complex themes.
In contrast to the last three non-sequel Pixar films — “Coco,” “Onward,” and “Soul” — which all had angles on death and afterlife, “Luca” exults in small moments that occur over one sun-drenched summer. Three kids team up to win prize money and, in Giulia’s case, take down the preening town bully.
The setting comes alive with characteristic Pixar artistry; animators toured Italian fishing villages to capture the feel of stucco, cobbled streets, pastel-colored buildings, and a thousand other details. Per usual, sharp-eyed viewers will notice clever visual references, like a nod to Italian moviemaker Federico Fellini and a vintage poster for 1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Even with such creative energies invested, “Luca” leans on a few tired tropes, as film critic Steven Greydanus explains at length. The young protagonist breaks away from overly protective parents to begin his quest, and the movie lands on universal messages of tolerance like those we’ve heard from recent Disney animated features “Zootopia,” “Frozen II,” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Still, a bit of thematic borrowing in “Luca” need not diminish one’s enjoyment of it.
Whale of a Good Time
Alongside several top Italian stars, Casarosa brought in comedic actors Maya Rudolph (“Bridesmaids”) and Jim Gaffigan (“Troop Zero”) to voice Luca’s parents. Gaffigan, a stand-up comic and father of five kids, shared his insights in an interview.
“When Pixar comes knocking, you’re just so thrilled,” he said. “No one else has the batting average they do. It’s not just that it’s going to be a successful movie — it’s going to be a quality one.”
While Luca’s parents are played for comic relief — really, everyone has those moments in this comedy — their love and affirmation of their son shines through in the end. The orphaned Alberto also finds a new home, underlining the importance of work ethic and a father’s presence to growing up. Not to spoil it, but you might shed a tear as the story takes a turn in its closing minutes.
Pre-teen years are by no means easy. “We all carry those feelings,” said producer Andrea Warren in an interview. “I still remember a time I tripped on the stairs in junior high and someone laughed. Of all the memories I have, that one is visceral. As an adult, you can look back and have tenderness for that kid who was growing up and trying to figure it out.”
Reflecting that true-to-life awkwardness, insecurity, and wide-eyed wonder, “Luca” invites families to see the adventures of summer through new eyes.
Rated PG for some thematic elements and brief violence, “Luca” is available on Disney Plus.