Ever since a sentient plastic cowboy learned how to humble himself in 1995, it’s been a common refrain – a defining one, in fact – to laud Pixar’s genre-revolutionizing algorithm. We know to anticipate creativity, we pretend to foresee its limits and we anticipate that creativity to be stretched nonetheless. This is the “Pixar magic,” as it were, though as the years have gone on it’s become increasingly compelling to decipher the specific alchemy in these films calculated to spellbind audiences. Longevity breeds introspection as well as expectation.
Enter “Luca.” The studio’s delightful 24th feature arrives Friday in the form of a smaller-scale (but no less big-hearted) adventure which feels like it’s seeking to reward awareness of the Pixar canon rather than blow conceptual expectations away to a colorful Land of the Dead or space-faring human colony. The gimmick here is forward-facing, deployed to draw us in while telling (ironically) one of Pixar’s most human stories yet about the runaway force of assumptions and emotional liabilities. And, yes, the kids in your family will have a grand old time.
The magic of “Luca” is low-key, but not dimmed, blossoming from the simplicity of its genre-inflected hook of finned, bluish-green merpeople whose natural (and slightly chaotic) ability to appear human on dry land gives “Luca” its allegorical oomph. For Luca (Jacob Tremblay, here confronting the world’s unknowns through decidedly less traumatic venues than in 2019’s “Doctor Sleep”), whose mother warns that “the curious fish gets caught,” it also provides a long-awaited shot at escape with new BFF Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) on the leather seat of one of those Vespa steeds they admire with wide-eyed astonishment, in one of the film’s many freshly endearing gags.
“Simplicity” is the operating word here, and in Pixar’s hands simplicity becomes a siren song. There’s no complex storytelling maneuvers to wrangle in director Enrico Casarosa’s feature debut save for the one rule Luca and Alberto must remember when venturing the surface: Don’t get wet, lest they betray their scaley selves and ignite the landlubbering fear of mythological sea creatures into violent aggression. That (along with a scorned mother’s wrath) is the most immediate peril facing the two shapeshifters as they train for the Portorosso Cup, an annual triathlon of swimming, biking and pasta-gorging for which victory is spelled V-E-S-P-A in the merboys’ eyes. It isn’t so much antics that ensue so much as sweet-natured discovery and conflict.
And, ok, some antics as well, including one cat’s menacing-charming skepticism about the boy’s fleshy facades.
As hinted by its setting of the quaint, seaside Italian community of Portorosso, “Luca” is liberated from the technical constraints or metaphysical devices of recent Pixar tales as the script (written by Jesse Andrews and “Soul’s” Mike Jones) relieves itself of the burden of intricately layered storytelling. That’s an ambitious feat in its own right, in a way defying the studio’s tradition while tinkering with what we think we talk about when we talk about the “Pixar standard.”
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It works, and to mighty absorbing effect as “Luca” hums to life in the summery rhythms of its breezy filmmaking while Luca and Alberto find a potential key to their wanderlust in Giulia (Emma Berman), herself on a personal quest to defeat a resident bully in the Portorosso Cup. So melodically executed is Casarosa’s depiction of this budding adopted family that the film seems to end just as quickly as it began (true enough, it’s less than 85 minutes before the credits roll).
That’s as much to do with some fluid editing as with the storytellers trusting the instincts of the audience; “Luca” keeps its literal fish-out-of-water story flowing along minimal exposition, encouraging organic arrival of its emotional discoveries and the unfolding of multiple montages orchestrated to gorgeous postcard-ready allure. That straightforward approach is a treat not just for the spoiler-wary critic but for the Pixar aficionado; it perhaps takes a movie like “Luca” to more clearly see how an effort like “Soul” must carry the weight of such massively philosophical ideas that the pathos struggles to surface. Pathos abounds consistently in “Luca,” albeit in a more moderate key, amid the pleasant notes of Dan Romer’s original score and a visual style akin to swirling paintings infused with the brushstrokes of innocence.
By the time we arrive at a nighttime expedition across the rooftops late in the film, that timeless elegance of youthful spontaneity – and, yes, eventually youthful frustration – proves itself as something to cherish while making the general absence of “Luca” from theaters (it will be available almost exclusively on the Disney+ service come Friday) something to lament. The movie comes into its own from the jump with an elementality we realize may have been missing from Pixar as the company itself enters its adult years, though the film’s brisk pacing can occasionally seem at odds with our desire to more fully soak in the heavenly environment of Portorosso. Even then, there's a thematic payoff in the compromise: There’s only so much time to marvel in the here and now when we’re motivated by what could be, as Luca and Alberto are.
All this isn’t to say one wouldn't readily identify the Pixar-isms of “Luca” from across the Adriatic. The tropes are here con gusto – as well as reliable themes of companionship, longing and parental overprotection – but they’re illustrated with a warmth and wonder befitting the imaginations, aspirations and eventual fissures which erupt between our young companions. A saltwater sting in the story’s final act echoes the maturity we’ve come to expect from Pixar fare, though admittedly how it reaches resolution is derivative of an ocean of friendship-on-the-rocks stories we’ve seen before. The punch to the gut is lighter in “Luca,” as if Casarosa were expecting us to aqua-uiesce to merely a small puddle of tears instead of a bucket.
The director makes the most of it. The story may be familiar, but it’s told with such musicality that perhaps “Luca” subverts our expectations nonetheless.
"Luca" is rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence. It's available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday.
Directed by Enrico Casarosa
Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Maya Rudolph
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