The shortest Pixar movie since “Toy Story,” and one of the few that manages to keep its high-concept premise anchored to a simple human scale, Enrico Casarosa’s “Luca” is effectively the Disney+ equivalent (read: non-alcoholic version) of an aperol spritz on a late summer afternoon: sweet, effervescent, and all the more satisfying for its simplicity. At times, “Luca” is so modest, so restrained, so not about sentient action figures or a family of superheroes or the nature of the human soul that it almost doesn’t feel like a Pixar film at all.
This is a Pixar thing to the very last gill, of course, and easily recognized as such; the rounded character design is a dead giveaway even before you get to the paranoid (yet lovingly aloof!) parents and the unbridled joy of discovery. And yet, Casarosa’s feature debut — a modest and personal coming-of-age story about two pre-adolescent fish boys eating pasta and obsessing over a Vespa together during that last perfect moment of childhood — seems to have less in common with the studio’s previous movies than it does the whimsical shorts that often play before them (including Casarosa’s own “La Luna”).
This is the kind of project that Pixar would have been able to produce at any time in its history if not for the pressure of grossing several billion dollars, winning a handful of Oscars, and waging a bloody civil war against the Minions for control of our kids’ imagination. It’s no coincidence, then, that “Luca” is also the closest that Pixar has ever come to capturing the ineffable spirit of a Studio Ghibli film (and not just because Casarosa’s semi-autobiographical tale is set in the seaside Italian town of “Portorosso”). It’s a sorbetto-light homage that reflects Pixar’s own self-confidence, and hopefully anticipates how the monolithic animation house will continue to create more intimate fare now that it can use Disney+ as a safety net.
The first way that “Luca” differentiates itself from the rest of the Pixar canon is with music. The staccato punctuation of Dan Romer’s score immediately distances this from anything the studio has made before (despite a familiar underwater setting). The “Beasts of the Southern Wild” composer summons his signature tremble and swell to set the stage for a movie that eschews the vast adventure of “Finding Nemo” for something more in-the-moment and driven by the capriciousness of youth.
Which isn’t to suggest that Luca Paguro — endearingly voiced by Jacob Tremblay — is a radical change of pace from the typical protagonist of an animated film, because he’s not. A timid but kind-natured kid with big ambitions and overprotective parents, Luca would be impossible to distinguish from the other examples of his archetype if not for the fact that he’s a 13-year-old sea monster who looks like a cross between the creature from “The Shape of Water” and a bar mitzvah. (Imagine a humanoid tadpole with a briny Jew-fro and you’ll be on the right track.)
Luca’s aquatic community is deeply under-realized — an errant mention of a neighboring family is what passes for world-building — but we’re made to understand that his kind have always lived in fear of the “land monsters” on the surface. As Luca’s goofily absent-minded father (Jim Gaffigan) puts it after he spots the underside of a fishing boat: “They’re here to do murders.” He’s not wrong. Luca’s mom (Maya Rudolph, deservedly the go-to choice for such parts these days) concurs that “the curious fish gets caught,” though she’s a lot more pointed with her fear-mongering. Only Luca’s salty grandma (Sandy Martin), who’s fresh out of shucks to give, seems to recognize the inevitability that he’ll disobey his parents and see what’s happening topside.
And that’s exactly what happens after a chance encounter with a parentless and free-spirited sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer, channeling just enough of the untamed energy he brought to “We Are Who We Are”), who drags Luca to shore in order to share the mind-blowing secret that his family has been keeping from him all this time: When sea monsters are dry, they turn into humans. Just like that, Luca’s tiny world expands toward infinity and beyond. He and Alberto are now free to read textbooks, eat spaghetti by the handful, and even compete against the narcissistic local bully Ercole Visconti (Italian comedian Saverio Raimondo, going full Waluigi) in the annual Portorosso Cup triathlon. Win the race, and the fish chums will be able to afford “the greatest thing that humans have ever made” and the magic key that unlocks the world beyond their imaginations: A busted old Vespa. Whatever it takes for Luca to avoid being sent to live in the deep with his demented uncle, a translucent anglerfish who Sacha Baron Cohen turns into one of Pixar’s funniest characters in less than two minutes of screen time.
This might all sound like the recipe for a typical fable about fear of the other, complete with sharp-tipped harpoons and hordes of frightened people chanting “kill the monster!,” but Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones’ lean script is far more interested in freeing its characters from a fear of themselves. While the people of Portorosso have inherited a Loch Ness-like belief in the local sea myths from their parents, and Luca and Alberto spend much of the movie trying to avoid even the tiniest splash of water (lest their skin reveal its scales in a beautifully chameleonic display of digital alchemy), “Luca” never suggests that it’s building toward the mob blood-thirst of “Beauty and the Beast” or the ecological warfare of “Princess Mononoke.”
On the contrary, the greatest threat to Luca’s freedom is the voice in his head telling him to shrink back and stay in his tiny pocket of the ocean, and the film’s most violent moment is a betrayal among friends who need different things from each other. Alberto wants an anchor, while Luca is desperate for someone to push him out to sea. Neither of the male leads are especially nuanced characters, but there’s a tender friction in how these boys mine strength from their mutual fears; probably tender enough for people to see the film as a broad metaphor for queer self-acceptance if they so choose (the “Call Me by Your Name” of it all is well-pronounced even before Alberto defends Luca’s fishy musk with a defiant “my friend smells amazing!”).
Of course, Luca and Alberto’s damp adventure on dry land is bound together by their shared friendship with the fieriest girl in Portorosso, Giulia Marcovaldo (newcomer Emma Berman). The only daughter of the town’s gruffest one-armed monster hunter, Giulia is a fun-loving epitome of Casarosa’s efforts to synthesize the suffocating perfection of a Pixar script with the self-possessed zeal of a Fellini heroine (particularly the ones played by her namesake Giulietta Masina). In a way, her unbridled lust for life helps liberate this movie from the airlessness of Pixar’s vaunted — almost clinical — approach to storytelling, and allows “Luca” to retain a rare whiff of lived experience amidst its mid-century idyll. If the film is still a bit hectic down the home stretch, prone to a smattering of didactic moments, and incapable of rescuing Luca’s parents from getting trapped inside a (funny) sitcom B-plot, those are small prices to pay for the rare Pixar movie that doesn’t feel like it’s been thought to death. That still leaves room for the endless possibility of a bright summer day with your best friends.
It’s no coincidence then that Giulia’s flailing energy is a great showcase for the film’s tactile approach to computer animation. Less flawless and plasticky than most CG kids fare, “Luca” gently affects the look of stop-motion puppetry whenever the characters are on land, and lends the salmon buildings and cobblestone streets of Portorosso such a visceral sense of place that you can almost feel the breeze coming off… the Mediterranean? The Adriatic? It’s unclear. Either way, you can feel it.
Not to get too “you could even say the town is like a character unto itself” about this, but the setting — so vividly plucked from Casarosa’s own childhood memories — is the secret ingredient of a movie that’s less concerned about what happens than it is about the magical possibility that anything might. The flavor in the air that one summer when everything changed. The first taste of the fullness that life has to offer. The ephemeral friendships that felt like they were going to last forever, and may have found a way to do just that. “The universe is literally yours,” Giulia tells Luca, and you can’t help but take her at her word.
“Luca” may not pack the melodramatic punch of “When Marnie Was There” or offer a whisper of the heart that’s as powerful as that in “From Up on Poppy Hill,” but it’s buoyed by the same frizzante sense of personal freedom that informs even those second-rate Studio Ghibli films. It may not be the best Pixar movie, or the riskiest — it sure as hell isn’t the most ambitious — but “Luca” is also one of the precious few that feels like it isn’t afraid to be something else.
“Luca” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday, June 18.