Luca doesn’t look or sound like any film Pixar has made before. It has a charm all its own and captures our imagination from the moment it begins. It’s the living definition of an immersive experience (pun intended). Who else would dare ask us to care about strange-looking sea monsters, and then repeatedly surprise us while spinning its coming-of-age tale?

The story begins underwater, where we meet an adolescent boy named Luca and his family. These fish have no idea that people regard them as sea monsters. Curiosity impels Luca to disobey his protective parents and see what life is like above the surface of the ocean. Director Enrico Casarosa and his team draw us into their lively story as Luca ventures onto dry land, where he is magically transformed into a human being. He makes fast friends with Alberto, another sea creature who yearns to be human. The boys venture into a seaside village on the Italian Riviera in search of the vehicle that will give them the freedom they desperately seek: a Vespa motor scooter.

Along the way they make friends with a spirited girl named Giulia, who enters an annual triathlon race and encourages them to join her and show up the town bully. Guilia’s burly fisherman father has no idea he is welcoming so-called sea monsters into his home. The boys risk everything to be part of this life when even an accidental splash of water will give them away and reveal their identity.

As usual with Pixar, the environment is highly detailed, and the people of the fishing village look and sound authentically Italian. There are a number of in-joke references to Italian movies which are fun to spot. Credit is given to cultural consultants who helped the Pixar team get things right (as they did on Coco). But the visual keys are unique to this project, where the characters are distinctly graphic (with rounded, cartoony mouths) and the village is attractive and inviting.

None of that was accidental. Director Casarosa grew up in Italy and brought his colleagues along on two research trips. “It was so important to go there to be able to portray the essence of the place,” he says in the film’s production notes. “It’s a very special place—the mountains and the sea, the big hills—it’s a wonderfully specific place that we needed to experience together, both for teambuilding and for the layers of detail that we can add to our movie. It seems in these coastal towns, there’s always a trattoria, a gelato shop, a wonderful bar where you can have coffee. It was really fun to be able to bring that feeling of specificity and Ligurian vibe to the background of our film.”

“We visited the places Enrico went as a child,” says production designer Daniela Strijleva adds. “We watched him climb a 30-foot rock and dive in—realizing after the shock of it that he’d been doing it since he was a child. That extra layer of experiencing his memories and nostalgia really underscores his love of the place. And of course meeting people from the region—fishermen, locals—gave us so much to work with.”

This all pays off, especially as the film ties up its many story threads. Deep feelings about friendship, family, and growing up after a summer-long adventure combine to tug at your heartstrings. I found myself on the verge of tears in the closing moments of this wonderful, disarming film.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024