Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Sacha Baron Cohen, Giacomo Gianniotti, Sandy Martin, Emma Berman, Francesca Fanti, Gino D'Acampo, Marco Barricelli, Saverio Raimondo, Marina Massironi, Giuseppe Russo (voices)
Written by: Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones
Directed by: Enrico Casarosa
MPAA Rating: PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence
Running Time: 95
Date: 06/18/2021

Luca (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Monster Splash

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last December, in the most brutal part of the pandemic, Pixar released the incredible, introspective, existential Soul. Now, with both summer and hope ahead, the studio gives us its opposite: Luca, a funny, lighthearted vacation of a movie.

Debuting Friday on Disney+ — fortunately without the $30 premium price tag, but also, unfortunately, not in Bay Area theaters — Luca aims for joy rather than profundity, and at this time, it feels just right.

Luca is the feature directing debut of Enrico Casarosa, who worked as a story artist on Ratatouille, Up, and Coco, and also directed the beautiful short film La Luna.

Like many other Pixar films, and especially last year's Onward, this one feels as if it were based on deep and life-changing childhood emotions.

In this case, a young character is curious about the outside world but lacks the courage — and also the support of his protective parents — to take that fateful step into the unknown. (Are all animators shy and withdrawn?)

As happens so often in life, a bold rapscallion befriends the reluctant one and gives him a helpful push.

Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, of Room) is actually a sea monster, whose job is to tend to a hilarious flock of sheep-like fish, which stare blankly into the middle distance while making "baa" noises.

While out with his flock, he discovers some human objects, and, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, becomes fascinated by them.

However, his mother (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and father (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) forbid him to venture very far, lest he be seen by any human monsters.

Enter Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer, the funny, yappy one from Shazam! and the It movies), whose father has left him alone to do pretty much whatever he wants. Alberto coaxes Luca to the surface, where their scales turn into skin, and where Luca learns to breathe and walk.

Alberto tells Luca about his dream to own a Vespa scooter and see the world. While he still fears his parents's wrath, Luca is in.

The new friends make their way to the nearby seaside town of Portorosso in the Italian Riviera, as beautiful, as relaxing, and as summery as a small town can get. (It's said to be based on director Casarosa's childhood memories.)

Of course, to get the money for the scooter, they must enter a race — accompanied by the plucky human girl Giulia (voiced by Emma Berman) — against an obnoxious, boastful villain, Ercole Visconti (voiced by Saverio Raimondo).

One of the strengths of Luca is its vibrant sense of humor. Sacha Baron Cohen, for instance, contributes an amusingly weird moment as an eerie uncle of Luca's.

Additionally the movie gets fine milage from its recurring Looney Tunes-style joke: the monster friends must avoid getting wet, which causes their scales to inconveniently re-appear.

Other gags involve riding in reckless, homemade vehicles, jumping off the edges of cliffs or careening down twisty, narrow streets. Alberto teaches Luca a mantra — "Silenzio, Bruno!" — to quiet the dissenting, practical voice in his head.

Indeed, director Casarosa seems to be having a blast with his representation of irresistible forces and immovable objects colliding in riotous ways.

Casarosa has said in interviews that he originally hoped to enlist the services of legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who passed away last July) for the music score; one can only imagine the kinetic blasts of glorious noise that would have accompanied these high-spirited images.

While the best Pixar movies boldly deal with death (Up, Toy Story 3, Coco, Onward, and Soul,) or the pain of growing up and growing apart (Inside Out, Toy Story 4, etc.), Luca instead splinters its focus on several sub-themes, unfortunately blunting the potential impact of each.

In terms of parental units, there are at least five to contend with: Luca's overprotective parents, his sly grandmother (voiced by Sandy Martin), Alberto's absent father, and Giulia's burly fisherman father (voiced by Marco Barricelli), who becomes something of a surrogate father.

Then there's the uneven triangle of friendship between Giulia, Luca, and Alberto. Luca is slowly drawn more into Giulia's orbit, with her love of outer space and the universe, than Alberto's (who believes the stars are actually sardines).

All of this is intertwined with the wrapping up of the plot: the outcome of the race, the quest for the Vespa, and the eventual reveal of the boys as monsters.

However, what makes Luca so good is that, while it lacks depth, it manages to balance all these things in a non-serious way so that everything still feels light and cheerful. Nothing is cluttered or forced.

Casarosa's previous, moving La Luna, in which a young boy goes to work with his father and grandfather sweeping up fallen stars on the moon, is so pure and simple, touching upon the passage of time and differing generations, that it remains one of the best Pixar shorts.

Hopefully for his next feature-length outing, Casarosa can find some way of re-capturing that magic, finding something that explores and discovers, other than merely experiencing. Until then, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a little joy, a little "bellissimo," and Luca has it.

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