There is cinematic sirloin steak with crème brûlée, and then there's cinematic grilled cheese with chocolate.
Whenever we look at Pixar's cinematic portfolio, the movies within that lineup all just left us with our mouths watering because of how desirable they can be, just like all the sirloin steaks and crèmes brûlées in all the world. When we look at grilled cheese with chocolate, of course, we know they can be made as standard yet tasty as they can be. But when you see them given extra ingredients and extra TLC to become something more special and more desirable, like grilled cheese deluxes with gourmet chocolates instead, they could easily surprise you.
Luca felt equivalent to the TLC delicacies.
The story is about a young sea monster named Luca, who lived with his family under the sea when he noticed some human artifacts lying around. This rattled his parents, though, because they knew that the humans who lived up above were dangerous and had been hunting them for a long time. For Luca, curiosity got the best of him, so he started to explore what lay in store for him in the human world, especially once he met up with another sea monster around his age named Alberto. Luca discovered, thanks to Alberto, that when they walked on land, their scales and parts of the sea monster anatomy can transform into those of the human anatomy, which means that they can turn human every time they set foot on land. Once they both adjusted themselves to their new surroundings, especially Luca, they went out on all kinds of adventures together on the Italian Riviera, such as learning to ride a bike and ultimately, discovering the seaside town of Portorosso. Once there, they both tried to blend into the human crowd without exposing their identities as sea monsters. As they continued to do that, they suddenly got fixated with competing in a triathlon race because if they were to win, they would've won the money needed to pay for what they sought out throughout their expeditions on land: a Vespa. With it, they knew they could've used it to go anywhere with no limitations. So, the two of them, along with an energetic girl named Giulia, banded together to master the skills necessary to win the big tournament, all while Luca and Alberto continued to try and maintain their outward human forms.
At first glance, the very first part of the story felt too reminiscent of The Little Mermaid, with the sea creature becoming curious enough of the human world to want to explore it, much to the protest of his family, who thought it's too dangerous. But thankfully, that was only the first fifth or so of the movie. Everything else felt so refreshing that they made any similarity it shared with anything else feel insignificant. For starters, Luca was a sea monster, and he got his chance to explore the human world when he met Alberto – who had more experience with it – as well as when he learned just how adaptable his species was on land once they traversed onto it, down to turning human. And even then, Luca didn't do that with magic or anything like that; it was just in his DNA. This even led to one scene I legitimately didn't expect where Luca's parents eventually caught on to Luca going missing and wanting to see the human world. So, after looking everywhere underwater, they both decided to venture to the surface next and search for him there. Then, as soon as they surfaced and touched land, they, too, turned human, much to each other's horror, for they might never have even seen each other in their human forms before. This was nothing like The Little Mermaid, where only Ariel, Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle discovered the wonders of the human world. In the case of Luca, almost everyone got involved.
And I'll admit, part of Luca's adventures with Alberto on land also seemed to carry Pinocchio vibes to it, with the story of a young boy engaging in all kinds of experiences with a loveable best friend and maturing as he went along, all within the confines of Italy. However, Luca's best friend, Alberto, felt a bit like a rogue best friend, the kind who was never afraid to be a bit wily on some occasions. So, he felt a bit like a mix between Jiminy Cricket and Lampwick. And unlike Pinocchio, whose biggest enemy was temptation, Luca's biggest enemy seemed to be hesitation. You see, because they went all out to make sure Luca was as safe as he can be, his parents were very strict about letting him wander too far from home, especially as far as the human shores were concerned. At one point, one of the first things they attempted on Luca as soon as they discovered his escapades on land was to send him away with his uncle – a lanternfish-esque creature with see-through skin named Ugo, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen – just as a means of discipline. You can tell how much this backfired when Luca felt more compelled to run away and join Alberto in all kinds of adventures that his parents may not have approved of.
And speaking of Pinocchio, I was just in awe of the cultures and atmosphere of the Italian Riviera, as shown in the movie. The authenticity of the landscape was primarily apparent through the dialect of the characters and the citizens of Portorosso, and depending on the characters - I'll get to that soon - they helped give Luca some flair to it. There were also plenty of moderate touches that added to its Italian culture, such as eating pasta, particularly knowing how many kinds of pasta there were to eat, and even the Vespas themselves.
I don't know how famous Italy is for its automotive work, but I know that one breakthrough it accomplished in that field was the race cars made by Enzo Ferrari. So, I can see the same kind of flair exposed through the Vespas, too. And, also like Pinocchio, it touched upon what I think was a major social issue for Italy once upon a time: the accessibility and importance of going to school. Shortly after Luca and Alberto met Giulia, Luca started growing close to Giulia, much to the annoyance and jealousy of Alberto. One major factor that played between them was Giulia teaching Luca about the solar system, which got Luca interested enough to have contemplated going to school, too. This was also big because before then, besides Luca and Alberto's desires for a Vespa to travel around the world with, they looked up at the stars, and they thought, mostly because of Alberto, that they were anchovies. And that the moon, Alberto thought, was the big fish that watched over them. That called me back to what Timon thought the stars were:
They're fireflies. Fireflies that got stuck up in that big, bluish-black thing.
So watching Luca's eyes open up more to what going to school could’ve done for someone like him, a sea monster in human's clothing, was really astonishing.
I found the characters to be quite likable. Many of them were introduced with shreds of innocence to them while staying in sync with their surroundings, especially Luca and Alberto. Luca was a meek and timid young boy who had the misfortune of being brought up by seemingly overbearing parents. So, when he first laid foot on the Italian shorelines, his dilemmas and simultaneous curiosity of the world he discovered tested him step by step. Because of his upbringing and how almost sheltered he was, he was always nervous to try out new things every time he encountered one, like walking on land, riding a bike downhill, or blending in with the crowd. In which case, Alberto assured him that the voice of doubt in his mind, which they both called Bruno, should just as well be silenced and that Luca should seize the day and step outside his comfort zone. And he did so with the mantra "Silencio, Bruno!" This aspect of Luca's personality, when you think about it, makes him more relatable as a character.
Alberto himself was a fun character, too, if also a tad cocky and too full of himself. He was adventurous, engaged Luca and himself into all kinds of adventures, like the quest for the Vespa, and had a bit of a rebellious side to him. One part about him that made him easier to identify with was when he told Luca about how his father allowed him to do whatever he wanted when he was away. However, after the two of them went through a fight, Luca later discovered that his father left him, so everything Alberto did, he did as he tried to fend for himself. And because he had no mother around, that pretty much made him an orphan with no one to turn to until Luca came along. You also see him have a boyishly bossy side, such as when he and Luca met Giulia. He clearly became more jealous every time Luca spoke with Giulia and, unlike Luca, was not open to the idea of going to school. Watching him go through the emotions made him feel more complex than he let on.
Giulia was a delightful, agile character with an excitable but stern personality and was somewhat as rambunctious as Alberto. Whenever they concerned contests or even characters like Ercole Visconti, she was willing to prove her worth and put the nagging naysayers in their place. Part of it came from her deliveries of all the fish her father hunted down and brought home, and even then, the heavy lifting she did was all for work. And let’s not forget, she went to school when she was not busy with work. This aspect was interesting because one, it made her look like a perfect foil for Alberto. And two, when she and Luca engaged in talks of education together, it led to some touching moments between them where they started opening themselves up to each other more, almost like you could see them being boyfriend and girlfriend sometime soon.
Luca's parents, Daniela and Lorenzo, were a bit aloof but also stern, especially as parents. At first, they were portrayed as tiny thorns on Luca's side regarding his safety underwater or even on land, which they were both afraid he would have done. But honestly, they became more exciting and delightful when they, too, first set foot on the Italian shores, in which case, they discovered their capabilities of turning human on land. Then, as the two of them got settled into their new surroundings and their new bodies, in low profile, they tried to splash water onto any child they saw in the hopes of catching Luca red-handed. These sneaky maneuvers on their end got a few chuckles out of me, and thankfully, the whole parent-child drama you'd expect from this was not exploited too much.
Giulia's father, Massimo Marcovaldo, at first, seemed like a buff, intimidating man. While he was prone to talk slowly and unevenly, he appeared to be a competent, hard-working man who cared about his family and friends, especially Giulia. Even the fact that he had no arm; at first, he made it look like it was bitten off until he mentioned that instead, he was born without that arm and he had only one arm to begin with.
The only characters who did not seem that interesting were the bully characters, including Ercole Visconti. Outside of them bossing the characters around and showing other people up – especially with a prize Vespa of their own – they didn't express that much personality to them outside of being determined to win the Portorosso Cup. On the side, they also sought to hunt down sea monsters for the reward money, for they believed the legends about them were true. However, one thing about them that made them more memorable was their voice acting, especially that of Ercole. His over-the-top Italian dialect jibed quite smoothly with his extravagant personality and made him humorous in some situations and intimidating in others. He's by no means a knockout like, say, Skinner from Ratatouille and how memorable he was under his French accent, but he still had his moments thanks to the acting by Saverio Raimondo.
The rest of the voice actors did an excellent job with the characters as well.
Jacob Tremblay felt like the right actor to take on the role of Luca. Having been a star thanks to films like Room and Wonder, he had just the right strides in giving Luca an uncertain yet timid and risk-taking personality. And here's why I think the casting on Jacob's end could not have been more perfect: Luca, the character, resembled the two characters Jacob played in the two films I mentioned, as his characters were both young boys with specific abnormalities before they each decided to take the bold leap out of their comfort zone and attempted to blend into the real world.
Jack Dylan Grazer felt invigorating as Alberto. He gave him his sense of excitement that's noticeable in the many scenes he shared with Luca. It made him look and sound like the kind of kid who knew his place in the world and knew when to rise to the occasion. And in scenes where he was down on his luck, frustrated, or upset, he gave him a tremendous amount of conflict in his voice that clued me in that he was going through a lot at that given moment.
Emma Berman as Giulia was a bundle of energy, too. She made her sound like the kind of girl who was a tomboy and eager, excited, ready for adventure, yet also polite at times. And, she also did a nice job of giving her a tender, childlike side, too, like when she had one-on-one conversations with Luca. This rhythmic range of expressions helped Giulia stand out as the kind of girl who either squirmed into your good side or turned you off, sometimes simultaneously.
The actors playing Luca's mother and his father also deserve some credit. Jim Gaffigan, who played Lorenzo, played him like a bumbling guy who didn't know much about raising Luca right but was still determined to do what he thought was right. And Maya Rudolph, who played Daniela, played her with a convincing no-nonsense demeanor while squeezing in moments of self-doubt to her, also. It was as if for all her good intentions with Luca, Daniela may have finally acknowledged that she might have overprotected him and that she may have been doing that to him for too long...while still feeling compelled to teach him a lesson. Both actors worked off each other wonderfully, just like how they allowed the characters to work off each other wonderfully.
I found Luca and Alberto's attempts to stay human while still managing to fit in among the Portorosso crowds both funny and nerve-wracking at the same time. Part of it was suspenseful because even a single drop or splash of water can revert their flesh into that of their sea monster forms. So, they had to avoid contact with water by any means necessary. But it was also funny for two reasons: one, half of that led to some good slapstick. Two, there was a cat among Julia’s family, named Machiavelli, who had a black thing over his mouth that resembled a mustache and was the only one outside of the sea monsters to have known the real identities of Luca and Alberto. It led to some tense yet hilarious moments where he stared down at the two of them as if he was saying, "You're not fooling me. I know exactly what you are, and you ain't human!"
And by the time their identities were exposed, I was a bit baffled by how the human community reacted to it. It was said that they hunted sea monsters for a long time; that's why Luca's parents were so determined to keep Luca safe, as well as why Luca and Alberto had to keep their identities a secret. And by the time both Luca and Alberto had their sea monster identities exposed to Portorosso once they finished up the triathlon, the humans all reacted with firsthand repulsion, and justifiably so. But then, when Massimo said that they were Luca and Alberto regardless, everyone else followed suit to accept them this way. Wow! This was surprisingly quick. I was expecting them to turn their backs on them. In fact, because Luca and Alberto helped load some fish for Massimo as part of work, too, wouldn't the community's sudden acceptance have felt a little more justified if Luca and Alberto had more of a helping hand to everyone in Portorosso, and not just Massimo? This transition felt out of nowhere to me.
Though I'll admit, in stories like this, we'd expect either the exposition or even the runaway child being found by the stingy parents to occur in the middle of the movie. But Luca decided not to go down either of those paths and instead focused on the friendship between Luca, Alberto, and Giulia when it was on the rocks a little. And even though it did expose Luca and Alberto's identities by that point in the movie, it was only Giulia and Ercole who knew about their identities before everyone else did.
Also, about the parents funding Luca, that didn't even occur until everyone knew of their identities, too. And even then, they never quite berated Luca for going to the human world; they were just happy he was safe and not harmed, typical of their "overprotective parent" qualities. Though it seemed questionable in shades, this felt like a nice bit of thinking outside the box on the movie's part.
The atmosphere and scenery were just gorgeous. Whether it's under the sea or on land, the animators nailed it in making the ocean look expansive and interesting yet dull, and the shorelines of the Italian Riviera look tempting yet pretty and brimming with life. Even the lighting of the settings was hit out of the ballpark. It helped the movie capture the bright, luscious summer areas and what amounts of joy that can bring to anyone like Luca and Alberto.
But for me, the most fascinating, interesting part of the animation that caught my eye was the design of the human characters. When you look at how the human characters were designed in other Pixar films, like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Brave, and Inside Out, they were all designed and animated as regularly as we believe human beings should be animated. Down to the mouth, the nose, the cheeks, eyes, hair, hands, and all their anatomical proportions.
Here, the human characters were instead designed with more exaggeration to their appearances. What's even more interesting is that these designs were prone to differ between each character. With such characters as Luca, Alberto, and Giulia, they had large heads, huge round eyes, skinny arms and legs, and stilted hairstyles. With such characters as Massimo, his face seemed a bit angular, and his large, bushy eyebrows hid his eyes. And even then, his eyes, whenever they were seen, were pretty small. And with characters like Ercole, his head was more perpendicular than the others, his nose was pretty big, and I believe his teeth were a skosh larger than the others. At first, this seemed kind of weird, but you know what? They actually added to the collective charm, not just of the characters but also of the movie.
This leads me to highlight what, in my opinion, makes this movie not only work but really work. Whenever I reflect on this movie, I always think about how bright, romanticized, and just how innocent the movie felt. Look at it this way: it made summer look like the most joyous time for any kid or anyone to frolic about, the movie came out in summer, the main characters mainly were little kids, and by allowing the exaggerated design to give the characters and movie their charm, they, in turn, strengthened the innocence of Luca. This kind of ties into what the general kid may imagine or feel whenever they get set for summer, doesn't it? They may exaggerate things, but they also embrace summer as if it's the best time of the year outside of Christmas. And anyone who went through these excitements when they were kids could relate to the movie in equal measure for the same reasons, too. So, long story short, Luca feels like both a solid tribute to summer and a clever ode to childhood.
This may not be high-caliber Pixar, but I can't help but feel like that was never its intention. Instead, it decided to tell a sweet, simple story about summertime escapades with a fantastical twist. And sometimes, that's really all we could ask for because what we got out of it is a fun, warm film with plenty of zest to spare.
As I'm writing this, it is still summertime, so if you want my advice, relish in all your summer tendencies starting with this film. There may be plenty more to unpack from it than you'd think.
My Rating: B+
To those of you who are wondering what became of Giulia's mother, she was not dead, just located elsewhere. While Giulia and her father were staying in Portorosso, her mother was staying in Genoa, where Giulia went to school.
I like how this movie was inspired by director Enrico Casarosa’s childhood in Genoa. I can really feel every ounce of his nostalgia seeping through in this movie.
Speaking of whom, there have been reports cropping up as of late that have alleged that Luca was a Pixar-esque portrayal of LGBTQ individuals coming out of the closet, or even of immigration. Casarosa went on record saying that none of this was his intention with Luca, but nonetheless was pleased with the multiple implications the movie had already invited.