Luca is sort of Pixar animation’s Italian version of The Little Mermaid with nice visuals and a zippy pace with rapid gags. It looks great as Pixar movies always do, and it has a nice story of two friends learning about themselves and the world. And, unsurprisingly, it has misfit monsters that grow to understand the previously scary humans. It may be held together by a few Pixar film clichés but it’s done with flair and heart. And also some really dopey gags like people staring into the sun too long or kids randomly being thrown into a fountain.
Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is a sea monster who lives beneath the ocean and yearns to see world beyond, although he’s repeatedly warned away by his mother, Daniella (Maya Rudolph) and his father, Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). When Luca ventures above the waves he is astonished to find when he’s dry, he looks like a human. There he befriends another sea monster turned human, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who wants to make a vespa scooter and ride away. The duo arrive at a small human village and meet the triathlon racer, Giulia (Emma Berman) who needs their help beat the brash racer, Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). But whenever the boys get wet their monster nature is revealed until they dry off, which is difficult on a sea-side island and Giulia’s dad, Massimo (Marco Barricelli) hunts sea monsters. Even worse, Luca’s parents arrive to bring him back to the deep.
There’s a lot of randomly untranslated Italian thrown in here, not huge chunks or important plot exposition, just little proclamations people fire off. It gives the film a sense of place in an actual sleepy Italian village when someone says “Andiamo!” to get them to hurry up, or little details like Italian signage or packs of grandmas roaming the city or how one of the steps of the triathlon is how fast someone can eat pasta. Also, amusingly, Giulia is often saying nonsense like “Santa Mozzarella” which just saying “saint (random cheeses)”. It isn’t as deep a dive into a foreign culture something like Coco was, but it feels distinctly Italian instead of just being set there.
The animation is up to Pixar’s usual gold standard. Animating water is generally difficult to pull off convincingly; if it isn’t done right it looks like blue paste. Pixar has been getting progressively better at this, starting with Finding Nemo and the water effects in Luca look astonishingly realistic. The transformation from human to sea-monster works well; it’s kind of like a splash reveals a water-coloured sea creature underneath, leading to fun gags where the boys have to quickly dry off. There’s one moment when a character reveals themselves as the sea creature in low-angle shot which looks vaguely menacing like of like a horror movie.
There’s sympathy for the monster here as the sea monsters are not truly monstrous. Like in most Pixar movies, they’re just misunderstood and kind of dopey. One great moment is when Luca is talking to his parents about going off and living with his uncle who is a semi-transparent gross looking creature who is cheerfully talkative. At one point the uncle’s heart literally stops so the dad prods Luca to punch him to keep it going. The gross fish monster uncle, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, even gets a post-credit scene of babbling more nonsense about how awesome it is in the depths of the ocean.
The duo of Luca and Alberto are a sturdy comedy pairing of the straight man and crazy guy. Tremblay as Luca has a lot of high-pitched freak outs that are good for a laugh and Grazer as Alberto plays a guy who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. Alberto just wants to get a Vespa and ride away to freedom but Luca starts to enjoy the human world, thirsty for knowledge while Alberto dismisses what the humans believe as falsehoods. They have a slowly growing split in that comes to a head when Luca seemingly betrays Alberto for Giulia and it’s oddly emotionally affecting. Their friendship pays off in the movie’s final scene that is very moving.
Berman as Giulia is hilariously motor-mouthed about all the things she knows and is very energetic about winning the triathlon where she’ll suddenly go off on about how important it is they train. The clipped, seemingly perpetually ticked off delivery of Barricelli as her father is good for some dark laughs. Especially humorous is how their cat keeps getting the boys suspicious side-eye. The father seems intimidating and stern so when he shows genuine concern about their well being it’s a nice surprise. Rudolph and Gaffigan get in some funny moments as the parents carelessly tear through the town looking for their kid, and their reaction to their human form is a fun freak-out bit. As the baddie, Raimondo as Ercole sneers a lot and drips overconfidence which works.
Luca isn’t as innovative as Pixar can be, it falls back a bit too many standard animation hero journey bits that the studio has done before. But is a lot of fun, looks fantastic and manages the emotional parts excellently. And it certainly has a distinctly Italian feel that not many other animated films have before.
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer and Emma Berman