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Pixar’s ‘Luca’ a fun fable of fish and friendship

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There are any number of reasons that one might want to heap praise on Pixar. The studio has been producing exceptional work for almost three decades now, redefining the possibilities of American animated filmmaking along the way. Many of the films they’ve made over the years have become legitimate modern classics, iconic movies beloved by audiences and critics alike. Pixar films are fun and funny, packed with jokes and references aimed at every level of the audience.

Now, this success can be a double-edged sword. Because the studio has proven itself capable of crafting these wonderful works – arguable masterpieces, in fact – they can also find their efforts being viewed as somehow disappointing if they offer up a film that is merely very good. It’s not really fair (save in the case of the two “Cars” sequels, which, by all means, be disappointed).

Some people will argue that the latest Pixar offering – “Luca,” directed by Enrico Casarosa currently available for streaming on Disney+ - is minor Pixar. And those people won’t be wrong. However, what we need to remember is that even a lower-tier Pixar film is almost certainly a legitimately good film (again, leaving aside the aforementioned “Cars” movies).

That’s definitely the case with “Luca,” which is a charming and touching coming-of-age tale about fitting in and making friends and learning to accept yourself for who you are. It doesn’t have the full depth of emotional complexity that we often see from the studio – though you’ll still have plenty of feels – and it certainly seems more directly kid-oriented than some of the more layered Pixar offerings, but so what? It’s still a delightful movie experience, one that might even prove to resonate a little more fully with younger audiences than some of the more celebrated adult-conscious fare.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay, “Doctor Sleep”) is a teenaged sea monster living in the waters off the coast of the Italian town of Portorosso. He spends his days herding fish and being generally curious about the world above – a world that his overprotective mom Daniela (Maya Rudolph, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”) and clueless dad Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan, “Tesla”) want to keep him away from. Only his grandmother (Sandy Martin, TV’s “Ray Donovan”) encourages his desire to see the land.

A chance encounter leads to Luca making his way to the surface, following a brash youngster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer, “Don’t Tell a Soul”) and discovering that when he dries off on land, he turns into a human. Instantly, Luca and Alberto become fast friends, with Alberto sharing his vast (and questionably accurate) knowledge of the surface world and the two dreaming of getting a Vespa and seeing the rest of the world.

Eventually, the two decide to make their way into Portorosso proper. It’s there that they meet Giulia (Emma Berman in her feature debut), a young girl in training for the city’s annual triathlon competition – a race won annually by an arrogant jerk by the name of Ercole (Saverio Raimondo in his feature debut). They offer to join Giulia’s team and are taken in by her and her hulking, taciturn father, a one-armed fisherman named Massimo (Marco Barricelli in his feature debut).

As Luca learns more and more about the surface world, he’s increasingly captivated by the possibilities, even as he and Alberto must remain ever vigilant to avoid revealing their secret to the people of Portorosso, a city with a fundamental and generational fear and mistrust of sea monsters. But as the race approaches, Luca’s relationship with Alberto becomes strained and Luca’s parents making their way to the surface to search for him. Ultimately, the young sea monster must decide what is truly important to him and whether he’s willing to do what it takes to achieve it.

“Luca” doesn’t deliver the same degree of emotional impact that we get from some of Pixar’s other offerings. And that’s OK – this isn’t a movie that is meant to dig into the morass of feelings in that way. It’s a much simpler movie, one that is content to explore less weighty themes. Not that what we get isn’t important or impactful, mind you – my affinity for coming-of-age stories is well-documented and this is a pretty darned good one. And the underlying ideas of embracing our differences rather than fearing them is one from which we all could benefit. Just understand that the emotional gutpunch we often get from Pixar isn’t coming.

Visually, the film is stunning. All Pixar movies are technically accomplished, but this one splashes across the screen with an aesthetic vividity that is truly beautiful to look at. There are individual shots – small, large and in-between – that are breathtaking to see, moments tiny and tremendous that land exquisitely upon the eye. Plus, the character design provides plenty of delights of its own.

It’s a winning cast as well. Tremblay and Grazer are among the best of the current crop of talented young actors; both put their abilities to good use here. The chemistry between them is ample and obvious, creating the kind of friendship dynamic that will likely ring familiar to viewers young and old alike. The supporting cast shines, with pros like Rudolph and Gaffigan bringing their A-games. Berman is charming and easy to like and Raimondo brings a wonderfully hissable villain to life. Sacha Baron Cohen shows up too, as Luca’s weird deepwater uncle – I’ll leave it to you to see it for yourself.

Ultimately, “Luca” is aimed more directly at younger viewers than many of Pixar’s recent offerings. But even with a little less narrative sophistication, the film develops depth in other ways. With clear messages, engaging themes, a quality cast and an at-times utterly mesmerizing aesthetic, there’s plenty to like here. Does this film reach the heights of Pixar’s greatest films? No. No one is going to put this one in the pantheon. However, it is a gentle and gently entertaining reminder that even second- or third-tier Pixar means a high-quality movie experience.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 June 2021 05:55

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