The journey through adolescence is one of the most popular themes in cinema. From Harry Potter to The Iron Giant, Harold and Maude to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it sometimes seems like everyone in the movies is just trying to grow up. Even Pixar’s Toy Story franchise is about Andy’s gradual coming-of-age journey across the four films of the phenomenally successful series. The theme’s no stranger to Pixar’s other films either, from Finding Nemo and Inside Out, to Up and Monsters, Inc. Pixar also has a tendency to add scenes of great peril to heighten the drama, something that can occasionally prove quite traumatic to viewers. It’s impossible to watch the alarming incinerator conveyor belt scene from Toy Story 3 without feeling anxiety, as just one example.
Fortunately, there’s almost no peril in Pixar’s breezy, enjoyable new animated film Luca. Instead, it’s a lovely homage to summer friendships and childhood dreams. The story focuses on Luca (voice of Jacob Tremblay), a boy who lives under the sea with his parents and grandmother and tends to his “flock” of goatfish each day. But like Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Luca is fascinated by the human detritus that float down to their undersea home.
What he doesn’t know is that sea people magically transform into air-breathing humans once they’re out of the water. Instead, Luca learns this rather inadvertently when he tumbles through the surf onto a beach. He is immediately befriended by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a fellow undersea boy who’s mastered the human world and lives atop an abandoned tower with even more human junk. Luca and Alberto become instant best friends, in some of the sweetest scenes in the film.
It’s 1960’s Italy and their shared dream is to acquire a Vespa scooter and explore the human world together. Just across the bay is the picturesque little village of Portorosso and soon enough they sneak into town and are surprised to learn that humans are fun and happy, not scary at all. The town’s kids all play soccer in the piazza and it doesn’t take long for the two boys to meet young firecracker Giulia (Emma Berman), the third member of their summer gang. She’s the daughter of Massimo (Marco Barricelli), the local fishmonger, and she’s a terrific character. She’s also as smitten with Luca as he is with her. Ah, the sweet poignancy of summer romance!
Complicating this otherwise idyllic scene is local town bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). He owns a beautiful red Vespa, but as repeat winner of the town’s funny version of the Ironman, the Portorosso Cup, he’s got endless swagger and an ego that won’t quit. Soon enough Giulia, Luca, and Alberto have teamed up to compete in the Portorosso Cup and beat Ercole. Luca will compete in the bicycle race, Alberto is soon training for the competitive pasta eating, and Giulia is the team’s swimmer. Neither boy can swim, of course, because they return to their original “sea monster” appearance as soon as water touches them.
There’s more to the story, but that’s the basic setup of Luca, and it’s charming. The little town is gorgeous even if it’s a rather nostalgic version of 60’s Italy. There are no real surprises in the film, so you can guess just about all of the plot, but turns out that it’s okay. Not every film has to constantly surprise and startle its viewers, particularly one aimed at the younger crowd.
Indeed, little people are going to really love this sweet, innocuous confection of an animated movie. Luca doesn’t break any new ground with its story. The moral of “let’s all just get along” is a bit trite, but still worth hearing, a pleasant antidote to the endless contention of our modern world.
The animation is beautiful as we’ve learned to expect from Pixar and Dan Romer’s music is spot on with its lively Italian lyrics and peppy tunes. Truth be told, there’s a lot to like about Luca and the film is unquestionably suitable for the entire family. It’s also astonishingly forgettable, particularly when compared to some of Pixar’s best works, like the eye-popping Coco and the endlessly creative Soul. Still, if you’re a fan of animation, Luca is not to be missed, even if, like a cone of gelato on a hot day, you’ll forget about it an hour or two later.