Luca (2021)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 6/21/21

Luca is a young sea creature who lives a simple and peaceful life with his family under the waves, while the constant threat of humans looms above them. Naturally, the lure of bizarre artifacts from the surface world overwhelms him, and a chance encounter with another sea creature named Alberto forces him onto dry land where he assumes the form of a human. Fascinated by this new world, Luca and Alberto become fast friends and dream of owning a Vespa so that they can explore the entire planet. However, when Luca's parents find out about his "extracurricular activities," they decide to send him away to the deep ocean to live with his crazy uncle. But instead, Luca decides to run away and live with Alberto as a human boy. They eventually end up in a small seaside town, where they meet a headstrong young girl named Giulia and the town bully, Ercole. Luca, Alberto, and Giulia team up to end Ercole's reign of terror by beating him in the town's annual bike race, but that's going to be a lot harder than they expect - especially with reports of sea monsters being sighted...

It's a delightfully sweet and charming coming of age film that carries a surprisingly light and warm touch. Unlike so many Pixar films, it manages to avoid being tragic and morbidly depressing, and focuses on positivity and the magic and innocence of youth instead. I kept waiting for bad things to happen and for the film to shift into dark and scary places, but it never did. While the tension gets pretty intense at times, the perils that our heroes face are rarely life-threatening and the emotional drama feels genuine and not manipulative. I was also pleasantly surprised that there was no romantic angle in the film, which kept Luca's heart, dreams, and intentions pure. Luca, Alberto, and Guilia are just kids who dream about amazing adventures and a bright, uncomplicated future. Luca chooses to engage Giulia intellectually and wants to learn more about the human world, which threatens Alberto's big brother hold over Luca's attention and adoration. That emotional tension and jealousy are all too relatable as children broaden their horizons and make new friends. Alberto opened the door for Luca, but his jealously and immaturity are holding Luca back.

In many ways, the film feels like a modern update of "Pinocchio" with a touch of "The Little Mermaid" tossed in, but without all of the dark and scary stuff. Luca is a good kid. He's nice and polite, and has a strong moral compass, but he's also sheltered and naïve. His parents aren't overbearing, but they're also convinced they know what's best for him (as parents do). They also risk their lives to bring him home safely. Alberto is the cool older brother character - a reckless and seductively bad influence with real world experience who seemingly knows everything, which puts both of them in danger. He feeds on Luca's admiration, naïveté, and gullibility, which just masks his own pain, loneliness, and insecurity.

As you would expect from Disney/Pixar, it's a great looking film with a wonderful soundtrack and excellent voice acting. The environments are clean, warm, and inviting, and the Mediterranean vibe creates an idyllic setting. The character designs are simple and loose, with smooth round features similar to Aardman's claymation designs. The story is simplistic, but purposely so. While it's told from a child's perspective, it never talks down to the audience and it doesn't stoop to getting cheap laughs. It's an exploration and celebration of youth and the boundless imagination that inspires children's lives before the harsh realities of adolescence and adulthood crush their dreams and worldviews. And even so, the film ends on a high note of positivity, hope, friendship, community, and family. Exactly what I needed after fifteen months of pandemic self-quarantine.