Dir: Enrico Casarosa. Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Marco Barricelli, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan. Cert PG, 96 mins
Pixar has, since its inception, always been embroiled in a game of one-upmanship with itself. No concept – not death, depression, nor our fundamental sense of purpose – can be too weighty to render in bright colours, moon-eyed cartoon characters, and whimsical microcosms trapped between the planes of reality and imagination. The studio’s latest, Luca, feels like an exception to those rules.
It never asks any tortuous questions of its audience. You don’t have to imagine what you’d tell a dead loved one if you had the chance to see them one last time (a la Onward). You’re not made to think about what it’s like when you look around and realise you’ve outgrown the life you’ve built for yourself (looking at you, Toy Story 4). It is rigorously unphilosophical in a way that proves to be its greatest strength.
Luca is a gorgeous, tender-hearted paean to childhood summers spent with sunburnt noses and calloused fingers, and to the friendships that have helped us discover who we are. At its heart are two boys, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) – young sea monsters, to be precise – who live off the coast of the Italian Riviera at some point in the middle of the last century. Those on the land have hunted those in the sea for generations. It’s too dangerous to breach the surface, or so Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) say.
Their son prides himself on being an obedient child, so he collects his dinglehoppers, mopes around with his flock of fishy pets, and dreams of being where the people are. Then, Alberto appears – the plucky one, who says “Silenzio, Bruno” to his all his fears. It’s one of the many cobbled-together Italian phrases that he repeats without much care for the meaning. Together, the boys explore all the small joys of human existence. Director Enrico Casarosa, whose previous work includes the Oscar-nominated short La Luna, drew heavily from his own youth spent in Genoa, where he became close friends with an Alberto, who was just as rebellious as his onscreen counterpart.
His film is refracted through those golden memories – of cobbled streets, green hills, chiselled cliffs, cold gelato, old Vespas, and plates full of trenette al pesto. Even the animation style feels more deliberately childlike than usual. The edges are softer, while the palette is vibrant and relatively simple. There’s even a tactile quality to it all that feels vaguely reminiscent of claymation, particularly Claude Barras’s 2016 film My Life as a Courgette, which similarly grounds its story in a child’s point of view.
Luca discovers that sea monsters can adopt human guises whenever they leave the water – in shimmering transformations that are technically complex to animate but look as natural and effortless as can be. It’s in the nearby town of Portorosso that they meet Giulia (Emma Berman, the newcomer in this universally bright and brilliant cast), who’s eager to curb the ego of local snob Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) by winning the town’s yearly triathlon. Ercole hasn’t taken kindly to Luca and Alberto, two outsiders he views only as “vagrants”.
The screenplay, by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, serves as a kind of all-purpose allegory, where audiences are free to narrow in on its queer subtext, its rebuke of xenophobia, or its triumph against any facet of small-mindedness. What’s important is the way the film gently unpacks how prejudice fortifies itself when it spreads unquestioned across generations. The pleasure of Luca lies less in its intellectual takeaways, than in the profound sensations that it stirs up. It’s a beautiful evocation of youthful possibility – of the sun beating down, the wind in your hair, and a road in front of you that feels as if it may never reach its end.