US (2021) Dir. Enrico Casarosa

One specific corner of the filmmaking world that was fortunate enough not to suffer from the Covid shutdown was the animation sector. Think about it – all the work could be done at home, even the voice acting! Pixar certainly took advantage of this, whacking out both Soul and this latest offering in quick succession.

Set during the summer of 1959, Luca Paguro is a young sea creature living in the waters surrounding the Italian coastal town of Portorosso. His strict parents Daniela and Lorenzo fear humans will hunt him and forbid Luca from going near the surface, but after meeting Alberto Scorfano, a fellow sea monster who lives alone on the surface waiting for his absent father to return, Luca discovers they take on human form when dry.

When his parents discover Luca has been to the surface, they decide he would be safer with his Uncle Ugo in the deep sea, so Luca and Alberto run away to Potorosso. Upon arrival, they meet vain Ercole Visconti with a flash Vespa, paid for by winning the annual Potorosso Cup race. Hoping to buy their own Vespa to travel the world, Luca and Alberto team up with tomboy Giulia Marcovaldo to enter the race.

It might be a gentle tale of friendship and social acceptance but something about Luca also feels like a Pixar Greatest Hits film. The aquatic aspect naturally incurs comparisons to Finding Nemo (with a dash of Miyazaki’s Ponyo); the relationship between Alberto and Luca is reminiscent of that of the brothers in Onward; and the sea creature designs distantly echo Monsters Inc., a familiarity also true of the humans to characters from other Pixar films.

This doesn’t mean Luca is a bad or a necessarily lazy film, rather it doesn’t stray too far from convention. The one area it is does stand out is by having an Italian born director in Enrico Casarosa, making his feature debut after winning an Oscar for his 2011 short La Luna. Primarily a writer, storyboard artist, and other roles in the production process, Casarosa’s credits cover Pixar and other animation companies, so his experience is both widespread and comprehensive.

Perhaps this explains the easily recognisable reference points, as if Casarosa is drawing on everything he previously worked on. This may not be noticeable to everyone, so it is worth reiterating this is not to the detriment of enjoying this breezy escapade. Indeed, it is full of the usual animated hijinks along with a positive message, thankfully imparted without patronising didacticism.

No doubt Casarosa intended for the underwater realm to parallel the human world above the surface through its geographical proximity, as the Paguros are just like any Italian family in attitude – Daniela is the fearsome, over protective matriarch, Lorenzo the well-meaning, possibly henpecked husband. When they eventually take to the land later on, their human forms confirm this similarity.

Alberto introduces Luca to Vespas and together they attempt to build one out of scraps of wood and sort of succeed – it disintegrates on its maiden voyage. But it is enough to inspire them to want to travel the world and a Vespa is their transport of choice. Being a loner, Alberto assumes a big brother role to Luca, relating inaccurate information and dubious boasts to impress Luca, but more importantly, he now has a friend.

Making friends in Potorosso isn’t easy with it being a fishing town, whilst the locals are on high alert due the sighting of sea monsters, including Giulia’s giant, one-armed father Massimo at the forefront of the hunting squad. Plenty of comedy is mined from the boys avoiding getting wet or having to disguise themselves when they do to keep their secret intact. Fortunately, a quick rub town with a towel does the trick.

Giulia is in an interesting position of being a third wheel in Alberto’s eyes; by educating Luca with genuine facts she derails their travelling plans. Yet, the chemistry between the three of them as odd kids out – Giulia’s parents are divorced so she alternates between Portorosso and Genoa where her mother lives – is a vital ingredient of the film’s overall dynamic and its heart, and along with her desire to whoop Ercole in the Potorosso Cup, gives Giulia agency beyond a supporting role.

Ercole is the only character to stand out as a caricature of Italian stereotypes, right down to the exaggerated accent. He is only 16, seemingly privileged and very sure of himself, flanked by two comedy henchmen Ciccio and Guido. Ercole walks around town with self-inferred impunity through bullying the other kids, though why the adults don’t anything suggests maybe his father is a big cheese. Every film needs a villain and despite the specious presentation, is an entertaining if functional one.

Being a Pixar film means the production values will be high and indeed they are, be it in the aesthetics and textures of the world building both above and below the surface, to the smoothness of the animation. However, there doesn’t appear to be any concerted effort to take this aspect a step further as prior films have done, something the concept of shape-shifting creatures lends itself to, again a sign of this being “just another film”, and not a must-see paradigm shifter.

Just as telling is the absence of any well-known names in the voice cast, the only one I recognised being Sacha Baron Cohen. Normally, this would be seen as a deficit, but the positive is the audience can believe in the characters more through not knowing who is voicing them if the actor is easily distinguishable.

Luca is an anomaly of a film – it has a great concept, strong story with an admirable message, great characters, is a lot of fun, and does everything right, yet for whatever reason doesn’t quite reach top gear and hitting the emotional highs synonymous with Pixar classics. Nevertheless, a pleasant and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes.

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