The curious fish gets caught!
It’s been ten years since one of Pixar’s best shorts was released alongside Brave. Storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa‘s La Luna was a heart-warming tale merging our reality with a fantastical premise in a way that proved perfectly suited for the animation medium’s infinite storytelling possibilities. The resonate familial relationship at its center led into that recognizable emotional journey every child and parent must take in order to allow the former the freedom to choose his/her own identity away from the latter’s shadow … but not totally removed from its inspiration. It’s therefore no surprise that Casarosa’s feature debut Luca would follow in those same footsteps by crafting an adventure as much about the soul as it is our innate quest for independence upon its rough and well-traveled road.
Sparked from a story by Casarosa, Jesse Andrews, and Simon Stephenson, Andrews and Mike Jones‘ script mixes in a bit of Federico Fellini (keep your eyes peeled for an Easter egg of 8½‘s lead actor Marcello Mastroianni) and Disney’s own The Little Mermaid to provide young Luca Paguro’s (Jacob Tremblay) coming-of-age. He’s a sea monster who lives at home with his parents (Maya Rudolph‘s overprotective Daniela and Jim Gaffigan‘s aloof Lorenzo) and shepherds their farm’s “sheep” (the juxtaposition of fish “baa-ing” is a humorously jarring one) during the summer. It’s a quiet and safe existence away from the risks of the surface and its “land monsters” (aka humans). Luca hides when the bottom of a boat is seen and promises to never venture too close to the shore.
Daniela and Lorenzo raised a good kid, but that truth doesn’t mean Luca won’t find his curiosity getting the better of him when the world above his head ventures down on its own. It starts with an alarm clock and a playing card—spoils from an impromptu treasure hunt that feeds his desire to find more. This allure for the exotic has Luca growing more brazen with each day until he’s setting up a scarecrow version of himself to keep the fish in line while traveling farther and farther from home to see what new and exciting objects await. That’s when he meets Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer), another sea monster his age who’s gone full native by choosing to live his days on land as a human.
How is it possible? Well, their species is highly adaptable. Their scales, gills, and other fish-like attributes are only present when wet. All those earmarks turn instantly into skin the moment the dry off on the surface. Luca and Alberto can therefore walk amongst the monsters they’ve feared their entire lives without anyone knowing. One drop of water, however, and the jig is up. The spot it touches will turn back and prove to the humans that they are in fact the monsters they’ve feared their entire lives too. It’s a risk Daniela never wanted her son to take and why she’d rather send him to the deeps with Lorenzo’s brother Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen skating straight past Italian caricature into Werner Herzog) than worry about a harpoon.
As any kid who’s ever been told they can’t do something by an adult who refuses to listen to the reasons why knows, the threat of being sent away is only going to make the prospect of running away that much more palatable. So off Luca and Alberto go to Portorosso in search of a Vespa (despite not quite knowing how they work, how they are acquired, or the concept of money) and thus the keys to traveling the world together without rules or oversight. Lucky for them, the resident children are about to compete in the summer’s annual triathlon (swimming, biking, and … eating pasta) for a chance to win a large enough prize to buy a used Vespa of their own. But they’ll need some help.
Enter friend (Emma Berman‘s exuberantly precocious Giulia) and foe (Saverio Raimondo‘s egocentric bully Ercole). She’s been trying to beat him in this race for years and having teammates just might put her over the edge. Luca and Alberto can’t swim (obviously, since doing so would blow their cover), so they must learn how to cycle and use a fork respectively while also discovering what it means to be proud of who they are and humble enough to know when to admit they’re out of their depth. Will Emma and her mountain of a monster hunter father (Marco Barricelli‘s Massimo) find them endearing enough to accept once their identities are inevitably revealed? Will Luca and Alberto be able to grasp what it is they’ve been running from?
That last part is where Luca shines because there’s more here than familial dynamics—although its authentic depictions of living with suffocating parents, abandonment, and divorce are well-drawn and potent themselves. At the heart of Luca and Alberto’s actions is assimilation as much as escape. One wishes to learn in order to better himself and take what this new place has to offer regardless of the risk while the other searches to find a place he’s wanted by ignoring his ignorance and using an abundance of confidence to get himself in more trouble than not. Both want to embrace the human world as their own, but those differing motivations eventually put them at odds by igniting a defensive, knee-jerk fear that’s able to destroy their seemingly bottomless spirit.
It leads to a devastating betrayal that will hit you like a ton of bricks. And while it would be easy to simply let it arrive just so it can be fixed, Casarosa and company aren’t about to ruin the complex character study they’ve delivered with hollow clichés. The plot may follow familiar pathways towards resolution with well-worn themes of friendship, sacrifice, and acceptance, but the ways in which it finds those in-roads are often subtle and poignant. For every fun gag like Daniela and Lorenzo dumping local kids in water to see which one of them is their son comes a moment like Massimo’s gruff exterior softening to that of a father worried about the fate of a child he’s come to appreciate as his own.
The animation (the constant transformations from sea monster to human are always well-thought out for maximum dramatic and comedic impact), cultural aesthetic (both visual and musical), and humor are thus rendered as an embarrassment of riches piled on top. And that’s how it should be. We don’t watch Pixar films in hopes the surface artistry will distract us from the thin story beneath. We watch because we know the odds are that story will always be paramount. I wish they had the courage to hire all Italian actors rather than most (having the main characters devoid of an accent only highlights them being stunt casting by comparison to the rest), but that’s a minor quibble that says more about Hollywood than the superb quality of the work itself.
courtesy of Disney/Pixar