Luca, the latest under-the-sea Disney-produced animated adventure, might be a few leagues below such House of Mouse ‘toon classics as The Little Mermaid with its show tunes and Finding Nemo with its tale of fatherly love. But this buoyantly engaging Pixar tale directed by Enrico Casarosa, the maker of the Oscar-nominated 2011 short La Luna, provides enough catchy hooks to please most family viewers.
This coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s, a time when Italian-themed films rose in popularity, follows the adventures of two teen best buddies, who just happen to be sea monsters. Luca, voiced by Jacob Trembley, initially is averse to leaving the safety of his watery domestic life, given that his parents (Maya Rudolph as his overbearing mother and Jim Gaffigan as his distracted dad) warn of the dangers of coming into contact with humans, who fear their species. But spending his days as a herder of goatfish is a lonely existence. Only his grandmother understands his need for independence.
Luca becomes more curious about the world above when he spies some human objects floating around, including an alarm clock and an old Victrola record player. That’s when he runs into Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow adolescent sea monster who encourages his new friend to check out what he has been missing out of by not going above the water’s surface. That’s when we learn that sea monsters turn into regular humans when not drenched. However, even a drop of H20 will cause them to revert to their monster appearance.
Once shy Luca gets used to his land legs, he is awed by seeing such sights as trees, clouds, the sun and especially the stars for the first time. Meanwhile, out-going Alberto, whose father seems to have abandoned him, lives alone in a Rapunzel–like stone tower where he stashes numerous human items as if it were a museum.
To his parent’s horror, they learn that Luca has seen the world above the sea and decide to send him to live with his portly uncle Loca, an angler fish with an light on his head – a possible Easter Egg call-out to Finding Nemo. That is enough incentive to join Alberto, who is desperate to own a Vespa scooter. They decide to swim to the shore of nearby Portorosso, a small seaside town on the Italian Rivera. This being a Pixar fantasy, of course, there is plenty of humor to be milked once they awkwardly try to blend in with regular humans.
They quickly make an ally, a feisty and brainy red-headed local girl named Giulia, who stands up for the newcomers when the local bully Ercole Visconti mistreats her new-found friends. Soon, Luca and Alberto are invited to a pasta and pesto dinner at her house, served by her burly fisherman father who was born with only one arm. Meanwhile, Luca’s parents are intent on finding their son. The trouble is, they don’t know what he looks like as a human and vice-versa.
The last third of the film is mostly devoted to the yearly Portorosso Triathalon, which involves swimming, bicycling and, of course, chowing down pasta. At first, the three pals decide to be known as the underdog team while cocky Ercole, who has won for the past three years, conspires to make waves about their hopes. But Alberto gets upset that Luca would rather go to school than travel the world on a Vespa scooter and decides to quit. Eventually, circumstances cause the town folk to realize that there are sea monsters in the midst. Instead of demonizing them, however, they accept their presence.
The Pixar team behind Luca does a fine job of fashioning two very different and engaging environments, and the character work is quite impressive. I also liked the Italian-themed movie posters from the era that are plastered on the town’s walls, including Summertime, Federico Fellini’s La Strada and the ultimate Vespa-riding film Roman Holiday. And, of course, there is a reference to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There is also a photographic cameo made by Marcello Mastrioianni, one of the greatest Italian actors of all time.
But instead of being just a boyhood lark with a side of delicious nostalgia, Casarosa manages to also make a statement about acceptance and caring for outsiders, whether it’s the LGBTQ+ community or immigrants fleeing dangerous countries and hoping for a better life.