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Review: Disney and Pixar's 'Luca' finds the perks of being a sea monster

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Alberto, voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer, right, and Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay, in a scene from the animated film "Luca."

Be not distracted by the picturesque Italian seaside, lovingly rendered in CGI. “Luca” is a Pixar movie, and so it still hurts to watch, and when you don’t expect it.  

The studio’s done it with anthropomorphized emotions and fish. Why would sea monsters be any different? 

Concerned with nothing less than what it means to truly love both yourself and someone else, Enrico Casarosa’s “Luca” hits Disney+ on Friday. (The house of mouse announced earlier this year that the film would mostly bypass theaters in the U.S., which seems awful silly in our post-”A Quiet Place Part II” world.) 

Sometime in the mid-20th century, we meet 13-year-old Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a wide-eyed goldfish shepherd in an undersea village of scaly mer-types. His parents (voiced by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) are insistent that he never venture to the surface world, where they promise that danger lurks. (Cue Ariel singing “Part of Your World.”) 

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Along with danger, the oxygen offers something stranger. See, when these sea monsters get dry, they turn into humans. Luca learns this when he crosses streams with the fun-loving Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), another boy sea monster — great band name — with a love of all things land, but without parents. They’re kindred, complementary souls. Alberto helps Luca out of his bubble, and Luca gives Alberto someone to experience the wonders of the world with. And no wonder is more enticing to these two brothers in gills than the key to adventure itself: the fabled Vespa. 

Fearing that Luca’s parents will tear them apart, the boys flee across the sea to the seaside town of Portorosso, where along with a hard-headed girl named Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman), they enter a local triathlon — a leg each of cycling, pasta-eating and, uh oh, swimming. If they can hide their true nature from the bloodthirsty humans, they just might be able to win the prize and ride a Vespa off to see the world beyond the water. 

In "Luca," two young sea monsters seek out adventure on land in mid-century Italy.

“Luca” does take a little while to get where it’s going, to its detriment; any time we spend away from Luca and Alberto adventuring is infinitely less interesting. The undersea setup is not without charm, but the “Flintstones”-level gags are nothing you couldn’t get from a rerun of “Snorks”— one of the neighbor families is named the Branzinos (admittedly pretty good), and Luca’s parents frustratedly kvetch, “Why don’t dolphins just talk?” The kids might dig it more.

But after Casarosa burns through 20 or so minutes of building a world the characters don’t spend all that much time in, “Luca” really gets off to the races. The film sets out to capture the wonder of childhood adventure, and the gorgeous animation depicts a world seen through eyes not yet made rheumy by the hardness of life. One sequence in particular, of Luca and Alberto cutting loose in the water as they make their daring escape to shore, could have gone on forever, and I would not have complained. It's downright painterly — the Mediterranean sun dapples the 2-D air, and the jewel-colored water makes you want to jump through your TV screen. Don’t; you would need gauze.

And the world that Luca and Alberto discover together, well, you’d run away from the goldfish farm, too. The movie’s Portorosso is a fairytale Italy of cobblestones, noodles and fountains. (Stay away from those.) Treehouses make for the ideal beds. There are "Roman Holiday" posters pasted to the shop walls. Mustachioed cats make for the most feared enemies.  

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It’s not just your imagination, if you're thinking that “Luca” evokes some of the spirit of 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name,” a decidedly more adult, and complicated, film. There’s the name “Luca,” for one, which brings to mind that movie’s director, Luca Guadagnino, and his sensuous depiction of an Italian summer where two young men spend weeks torturously dancing around their feelings for each other. There’s even a gutting train station scene here. (Another spiritual link: Grazer starred in Guadagnino’s Italy-set HBO miniseries, “We Are Who We Are.”) 

Casarosa has said in interviews that any resemblance is coincidental, and that the film is based on a boyhood friendship of his own. Watching a Pixar movie about two tween sea monsters and staking your enjoyment on a boundary-shattering romantic storyline would be casting your line out too far into the water, yes. I do think it points to a legitimate paucity of such storylines for young queer kids to see themselves in. Puppy love has looked precisely one way in nearly all media for a century; a desire for representation hardly seems desperate or prurient.

"Luca" was inspired by director Enrico Casarosa's own youthful friendship in Italy.

So, since we’re used to relying on subtext in order to feel seen, “Luca” might be all the more winning for its adaptability. Boys can always use more stories that teach them it’s cool to care about each other. And when Alberto jealously eyes Giulia as Luca shares his attention with her; and as Alberto “teaches” Luca that those big, beautiful stars are in fact anchovies; and as both boys surmount betrayal to make sure the other isn’t left to face peril alone, it’s a rare portrait of boyhood friendship with full interior lives, and with no fear of affection. 

It’s also a film about “otherness” that doesn’t condescend to its viewer, no matter their age. Unlike other kid flicks that celebrate being a weirdo in aesthetic terms — maybe someone just wears funny hats, say — there’s something deep, inherently so, that sets Luca and Alberto apart from the other kids in Portorosso. In their own misguided way, Luca’s parents understood this, and tried to protect him from it. They’re not entirely wrong, as tradition has armed the town’s citizens with literal spears aimed at Luca’s kind. But Luca and Alberto learn that their difference is a blessing. By living openly, and by showing their true selves, they inspire others in Portorosso to do the same.  

Some people will never accept the boys, but Luca can always find the right ones, his scene-stealing grandma says. It’s a refreshingly honest moment for a fable about sea monsters. It also comes just a few minutes before Casarosa dedicates the film to the “friends that pulled us out of the water and helped us find our way.” That’s a love story worth telling to all ages. 

'Luca'

Grade: A-

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Enrico Casarosa

Rated: PG for some thematic elements, brief violence, rude humor and language

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Watch: Streaming Friday on Disney+