Monster splash: Pixar’s ‘Luca’ is sunny and funny

It’s a pleasant summer flick, not a profound masterpiece

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In the most brutal part of the pandemic in December, Pixar released the incredible, introspective, existential “Soul.” Now, with summer and hope ahead, the studio offers the opposite: “Luca,” a funny, lighthearted vacation of a movie.

Debuting Friday on Disney+ — fortunately without the $30 premium price tag, and unfortunately not in Bay Area theaters — “Luca” aims for joy rather than profundity. It feels just right.

It’s the feature directing debut of Enrico Casarosa, story artist on “Ratatouille,” “Up” and “Coco,” and director of the beautiful short “La Luna.”

Like many Pixar films, especially last year’s “Onward,” it’s about deep, life-changing childhood emotions.

A young character is curious about the outside world but lacks the courage — and the support of his protective parents — to take that fateful step into the unknown. (Are all animators shy and withdrawn?)

As happens so often in life, a bold rapscallion befriends the reluctant one and gives him a helpful push.

Luca (Jacob Tremblay, of “Room”) is actually a sea monster, whose job is to tend to a hilarious flock of sheep-like fish, which stare blankly into the distance while making “baa” noises.

While out with his flock, he discovers some human objects, and, like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” becomes fascinated by them.

However, his mother (Maya Rudolph) and father (Jim Gaffigan) forbid him to venture very far, lest he be seen by human monsters.

Enter Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer, the funny, yappy one from “Shazam!” and the “It” movies), whose father has left him alone to do pretty much whatever he wants. Alberto coaxes Luca to the surface, where their scales turn into skin, and where Luca learns to breathe and walk.

Alberto tells Luca about his dream to own a Vespa scooter and see the world. While he still fears his parents’ wrath, Luca is in.

The new friends make their way to the nearby seaside town of Portorosso in the Italian Riviera, as beautiful, as relaxing, and as summery as a small town can get. (It’s said to be based on director Casarosa’s childhood memories.)

Of course, to get the money for the scooter, they must enter a race — accompanied by the plucky human girl Giulia (Emma Berman) — against an obnoxious, boastful villain, Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo).

“Luca” has a vibrant sense of humor. Sacha Baron Cohen contributes an amusingly weird moment as an eerie uncle of Luca’s.

It also gets fine mileage from a recurring “Looney Tunes”-style joke: the monster friends must avoid getting wet, which causes their scales to inconveniently re-appear.

Other gags involve riding in reckless, homemade vehicles, jumping off the edges of cliffs or careening down twisty, narrow streets. Alberto teaches Luca a mantra — “Silenzio, Bruno!” — to quiet the dissenting, practical voice in his head.

Indeed, director Casarosa seems to be having a blast representing irresistible forces and immovable objects colliding in riotous ways.

In interviews, he said he hoped to enlist the services of legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who died in July) for the score; one can only imagine the glorious noise that would have accompanied these high-spirited images.

While Pixar’s best movies boldly deal with death (“Up,” “Toy Story 3,” “Coco,” “Onward,” and “Soul”) or the pain of growing up and apart (“Inside Out,” “Toy Story 4,” etc.), “Luca” splinters its focus on sub-themes, unfortunately blunting the potential impact of each.

There are five parental units to contend with: Luca’s overprotective parents, his sly grandmother (Sandy Martin), Alberto’s absent father, and Giulia’s burly fisherman father (Marco Barricelli), who becomes something of a surrogate father.

Then there’s an uneven triangle of friendship. Luca is slowly drawn more into Giulia’s orbit, with her love of outer space and the universe, than into that of Alberto, who believes stars are sardines.

The plot wraps up, too, with the race’s outcome, the quest for the Vespa, and the eventual reveal of the boys as monsters.

All of these elements balance appealingly in a light, cheerful way. Nothing is cluttered or forced, as was the case in the moving “La Luna,” one of Pixar’s best shorts. About a boy goes to work with his father and grandfather sweeping up fallen stars on the moon, it purely and simply touches upon the passage of time and differing generations.

Perhaps in his next feature, Casarosa can recapture that magic, with a focus on exploration and discovery rather merely experience. Until then, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little joy, a little “bellissimo,” and “Luca” has it.

REVIEW

Luca

★★★

Starring: Voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan

Written by: Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones

Directed by: Enrico Casarosa

Rated: PG

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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