There’s just something about a film set during those youthful summer months of our childhoods that captures my attention. While the days of my youth were hardly as adventurous and memorable as those put to film, the best films set during the bright, sunny, and free days of summer always captured that mystical period of time where everything was possible and tinged with a bittersweet feeling of fleetness. LUCA, the latest Pixar import that exports the viewer to the beautifully animated coasts of Italy, is one such film that captures that mood while offering the heart and visual prowess that the studio has become known for.
Like many of the studio’s other works, LUCA, directed by first timer Enrico Casarosa, conjures a vibrant world where sea monsters exist, albeit in a Pixar way (cute and non-terrifying). One of those sea monsters, the young Luca (Jacob Tremblay), is your typical boy scout (or is it boy-scout-sea monster?) who spends his days in the sea doing chores for his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) and yearning to explore the world past the surface of the waves above him. Even as his parents tell of an above world full of terror, Luca nonetheless stares above, cautious yet eager to explore the unknown. Answering his prayers comes Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), the easy-going and adventurous land-dwelling sea monster who whisks Luca away to see all the exciting things the human world above can offer. Initially hanging out at Alberto’s secret hideout, the two sea monster/boys soon venture out to the local coastal town, shapeshifting into unassumingly cute children and finding friendship in the plucky Giulia (Emma Berman), a human girl always open to the idea of adventure.
Like other fish out of water tales (this time the phrase being literal) before it, LUCA finds much of its situations revolving around two sea monsters trying to make their way through our strange human world and its traditions without being discovered — thanks to the fact that the town itself is populated by fishermen with specific bloodlust towards alleged sea monsters. A familiar setup yes, but Casarosa (who wrote the film with Mike Jones and Jesse Andrews) uses that as a jumping off point to explore the subtle yet filling themes of friendship and growth. As Luca and Alberto make their way through town and into the good graces of Giulia and her humongous mustachioed fisherman father (Marco Barricelli), the two boys begin to get comfy in their new surroundings and Luca in particular begins to yearn to see and learn more, much to the chagrin of the more jaded and hesitant Alberto, who fears the possibility of being discovered for their true form. While certainly full of some laughs and gorgeous displays of the Italian countryside, LUCA is at its best when it explores the relationship of its two sea monsters, who slowly learn the bittersweet lessons of life and growing up (and apart).
Headlined by two gifted performers, the characters of Luca and Alberto, and their relationship, is brought to life by Mr. Tremblay and Mr. Glazer respectively. Tremblay excels at playing a good-natured kid exploring a new world, selling Luca’s awe and nervousness with ease making for a great partner to Glazer’s overconfidence masking a kid who in his own right is nervous about the unknowns that lie beyond those seemingly never-ending summer months. In both humor and drama, the two young actors deliver; in fact, this is a very well performed film all around with Ms. Berman making a noticeable impression as the crackling little girl who opens the world and her heart to two strange boys who aren’t so different from herself and her fellow townspeople. Just as vibrant as their performances stands the absolutely winning visual display put on in this film as the animation team for LUCA pairs the eye-catching backdrops of Italian towns and fields with the more cartoon-y character designs that are just as soft and cuddly as the film’s vibes. Backed by some wonderfully curated regional needle drops, LUCA beautifully captures the intangible feelings of those long ago summers filled with wonder and excitement for the next day and all the possibilities it could bring.
At its best, LUCA rivals even some live action films that follow those magical summers of past childhoods with its deft handling of film craft and narrative heart even if it is essentially acting as a continuation of those very films. Even so, because of its familiarity, the film can experience some lulls here and there, particularly in some of the conflicts that come into play outside of Luca and Alberto’s relationship. At times, one wonders if this film needs so much conflict seeing as how it thrives in showing off the lovely friendship between two boys entering a new, exciting world together.
Nevertheless, LUCA, with its heart on its sleeve, becomes of one of 2021’s best. It may not stand as one of Pixar’s most audacious ideas put to screen but it may just be one of the studio’s most heartfelt endeavors. In a summer where anything can happen, sea monsters included, sometimes the best things to come about are those that latch onto the heart.