Grade:  A-/B+
Rated PG

Since Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006, the look and sensibility of the studio’s films have changed to the point where you have to read the credits to tell if it’s a Pixar or Disney film. Cases in point? Brave had all the earmarks of a Disney princess film set in Ireland, but it was produced by Pixar.  Coco (2017) and Encanto look like they were cut from the same cloth, but Pixar did the scissoring on the former title and Disney the latter. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) felt like a Pixar film, but it came out of Disney animation studios. 

Now we get Luca, a 2021 film that, under the direction of Enrico Casarosa, does for the Italian Riviera what Pixar’s Ratatouille did for Paris:  it celebrates the landscape and the culture in a loving tribute, while focusing on a duo that hides a secret and goes against the social grain. Fans of the 1984 live-action Splash—starring Tom Hanks as a young man who has a close encounter with mermaid Daryl Hannah—might also see a few similarities.

Like Hannah’s mermaid, Luca Paguro is a young sea creature who has human limbs and attributes when dry but gains gills and scales and sea-creature appendages when wet. An Inside Pixar episode revealed that the idea of a “sea monster boy” was based on local legends and functioned as the perfect metaphor for “feeling different.” Casarosa additionally told Collider that Luca was inspired by his own childhood in Genoa, Italy and the adventures he had with a best friend: “I was really shy and I found this troublemaker of a kid who had a completely different life. I wanted to make a movie about those kinds of friendships that help you grow up.”

Set in the summer of 1959, Luca follows the awkward and timid Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who is tasked with herding goatfish off the coast of a little Italian town. His parents, fearing that Luca might be caught in a net, forbid him to surface (are we having Little Mermaid flashbacks yet?). But Luca leaves his safe world when he meets a fellow sea monster boy named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who mostly lives on land and experiences a world of adventures that pull Luca in. They become fast friends and race around together on a rickety, patched-together Vespa scooter, getting into mischief along the way (or Lampwick Pinocchio ones?). Naturally, their lives get more complicated by the day.

To win a real Vespa they bond with a girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) who helped them evade a bully, and they team to enter a triathlon. Giulia would handle the swimming and they would ride the bike and handle the pasta-eating contest. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and they have to contend with local fishermen and angry townspeople—proving that nothing about human nature has changed since the days when peasants with pitchforks and torches pursued Frankenstein’s monster . . . except the ending.

This is Disney, after all—Disney Pixar—and that means themes of finding oneself, loyalty, inclusiveness and acceptance. In other words, a happy ending that ties a beautiful bow on that package of positive messages. It also means music, and included among the songs and soundtrack compositions are excerpts from operas by Puccini and Rossini.

The first few days that it streamed on Disney+, Luca drew the most viewers for a three-day period and has since been difficult to find on Blu-ray, indicating sales have been brisk. At Rotten Tomatoes the film received a 91 percent “fresh” rating . . . same as Encanto. So who knows? Though fellow nominee Encanto is favored to win, maybe the themes of underdogs and inclusiveness will prevail on Oscar night. Luca may be simpler in its narrative style and animation, and the music isn’t as strong as Encanto’s, but Luca has the honest warmth of nostalgia and that special place childhood friends have in our hearts. It also offers a loving tribute to Italian culture and the feel-good theme that you can be accepted for who you are . . .  if people advocate for you.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  95 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Studio/Distributor:  Disney-Pixar
Bonus features: B
Amazon link
Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence

Language:  1/10—Several uses of the Italian word for “damn,” and recognizable name-calling like “stupido” and “idioti”

Sex:  0/10—Squeaky clean

Violence:  2/10— Very little actual violence; one character punches a fish, one character punches another in the belly, and there’s lots of talk about killing sea monsters and one threat with a harpoon

Adult situations:  1/10—There’s talk of being abandoned by the father and some heated arguments, but surprisingly no alcohol or smoking

Takeaway:  With Luca, Pixar created another charming feature with solid messaging; next up is the Toy Story spin-off Lightyear, scheduled for June 17, 2022 release