Luca is a lot like other boys. He doesn’t care much for his chores, his parents are a bore, and most of his days are spent dreaming of a magical place where life is beautiful and everything is sweet. He doesn’t know the half of it: That place he’s dreaming of has both pasta and gelato. Way better than kelp, which is an improvement on whale carcass, despite what his uncle thinks. Yes, Luca is like any other boy. Except that he’s a sea monster.
Luca, the latest feature from Disney/Pixar, is an airy story of summer friendship on the Italian Rivera. Jacob Tremblay voices the titular character, an amphibious creature that looks and acts like a real boy on dry land, but when touched by water, his skin turns to bioluminescent scales, his feet to flippers, his hair to fins. It’s his natural state, but he moves between the two worlds with ease. As does Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), another sea monster who also prefers land over ocean. He’s a little bit older than Luca, a little bit more knowledgeable—or thinks he is—and a little bit more vulnerable. Luca left a good family back at the cove; Alberto was the one left behind.
But none of that matters yet. All that counts is that Luca and Alberto have found one another. They spend the days on a small island of their own, reveling in the gadgets Alberto’s nicked from the humans and dreaming of their own Vespa—if you’re going to see Italy, you better do it in style. They hatch a plan to acquire one, but it will involve taking to the seaside village and trying the real boy act on full time. It’s not without precedent: Luca’s grandma (Sandy Martin) makes routine visits to the surface to play cards. Maybe enjoy some gelato. I like to think she has a beau on the surface. Cities are where it’s at.
Granny feels familiar. So does Luca’s mom (Maya Rudolph) and dad (Jim Gaffigan). They have the shape, look, and quirk of other Pixar parents, though Luca does a good job of making them feel more recognizable than recycled. Ditto for the story, which carries hallmarks of Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Monsters Inc., and director Enrico Casarosa’s previous work, La Luna—one of the better Pixar shorts from the 2010s.
A few other cinematic signposts pop up: A boat early on sports the name “Gelsomina,” Giulietta Masina’s character in La Strada—arguably one of the greatest Italian films of all time. A poster of La Strada can be seen in the town square, as can a photo of the great Marcello Mastroianni affixed to Alberto’s makeshift Vespa.
Yet it is the films of Studio Ghibli that Luca feels closest to: From the lightness of the image to the casualness of the conflict, Luca is soaked with a pleasing warmth built first through character, then through relationship. There’s something special about Luca and Alberto, something that brings them closer than friends—something that will make this the most memorable summer of their lives.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa
Screenplay by Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones
Produced by Andrea Warren
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Giacomo Gianniotti, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Sandy Martin, Marco Barricelli
Pixar Animation Studios, Rated PG, Running time 95 minutes, Opens June 18, 2021, on Disney+.