Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Luca’ Swims in Merry, if Simplistic, Currents


Director: Enrico Casarosa
Writers: Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones
Stars: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Sacha Baron Cohen

Synopsis: A young boy experiences an unforgettable seaside summer on the Italian Riviera filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides.

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Something is under the sea, and it is cute! And colorful! And it is from the people who have brought you other one-word darlings of animation like Coco and Soul…? The hesitation is there as, unlike Miguel’s trip to the afterlife and Joe’s trip to, well, the afterlife, Disney and Pixar’s Luca doesn’t linger in the mind or moor to the heart for long. These aren’t the filmmakers’ imperatives, one could even say, and what is instead is to give audiences an easygoing “day at the beach” experience through the days on the shore of a 13-year-old sea monster ragazzo.

Unlike his two aforementioned musical relatives, or his much closer mermaid cousin Ariel, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) has no brush with the triumphant when he, at last, breaches the surface. It’s a big character moment that simply comes and goes, possessing the same sunniness and breeziness behind nearly every minute of Luca discovering the whozits and whatzits of Vespa, pasta and the town of Vernazza (now called Portorosso, a semi-nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s Italian-centric 1992 film) without the usual fins and gills. Given Pixar’s known capacity to amplify the small or otherwise ground the colossal, Luca seems to be an outlier because it’s doing neither, whether it be Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones with the story or Enrico Casarosa in the direction. As if swimmers, the three men aim for straightforwardness from the outset, otherwise streamlining to lean toward that, resulting in a coming-of-age yarn with plenty of phases to count but none proving to be memorable. What you see of a particular component is what you get — the bond between Luca and fellow land-dwelling sea monster Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), their maneuvers around one wise firecracker fishmonger Giulia (Emma Berman) and her dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli) for their scales’ sake, a triathlon where victory means embarrassing the town bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), and how all those land-based adventures will pressure Luca’s mom Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and pop Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan) — no more, no less. Or nothing more in what initially seems less. It’s standard, which, while not a sin, will force you to adjust your expectations.

But despite being — for want of a better word — a “lesser” Pixar effort, Luca is no clearance-grade fillet. Andrews and Jones may have completely ditched the layers of themes and tones in their respective hit friendship-centric works, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Soul, but the humor and lightness they would constantly serve are free from saccharine (but with plenty of cheese), independent from side characters (hello, Minions) and the kind that gets the plot moving. Director Casarosa may have foregone the wonders of respite and intimacy he applied in the La Luna short, but the vibrancy and electricity — from Daniela Strijleva’s lived-in designs and Dan Romer’s heartfelt strumming — blend right in with details allowing Portorosso to be as much a postcard-primed reverie as an innocent memory (Casarosa said the Luca-Alberto friendship is inspired by his). You can, and will want, to travel to this world to meet these lives. And the escapism which Luca provides? It’s still proof the animation house can still make magic, only this time without the usual flourish that is an attempt to mine depth.

Still, if Luca can silence the Brunos who have chastised Pixar for being “so depressing” of late, it’s worth the while. And it will, considering how bright the universe is and how cracking the personalities are. Luca is an Italian getaway you should take when it’s available, even when it will all-too-quickly become a haze once it’s over (and when its big-screen brushstrokes are deemed more fitting for smaller windows on the first day of release).

Overall Grade: B-

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