Whether it’s Sully and Mike in “Monsters Inc.,” the lively residents of the Land of the Dead in “Coco” or Remy in “Ratatouille,” the magic-makers at Pixar love to make movies featuring entities we humans normally find frightening or repulsive but are actually lovable and funny and brave and endearing once we get to know them. The formula is invoked to great effect once again in the breezy and sweet and wonderfully colorful “Luca,” in which the creatures in question are sea monsters that are anything but monstrous.
Looking like a hand-drawn fairy tale book come to animated life, “Luca” has a captivating visual style with every detail popping, whether it’s the facial movements of the characters or the sun-dappled shadings of the buildings and the terrain or the shining sea or a very busy underwater world.
Our story begins with a scene reminiscent of the classic sequence in “Jaws” when the two overmatched fishermen try to use a pot roast to lure the mighty shark into their trap, to comedic and almost tragic results. In “Luca,” as “Un bacio a mezzanote” by Quartetto Centra sets the tone for an adventure set on the Italian Riviera in the mid-20th century, two local fishermen in the dead of night are venturing dangerously close to an area populated by sea monsters, at least according to local lore. Sure enough, they encounter just such a slippery and lightning-fast creature, who briefly gets entangled in their net before escaping. “What a monster!” exclaims one of the fishermen. “Horrifying!”
Cut to our first good look at this “horrifying” monster: an adolescent named Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) who has lime-green skin/scales, royal blue “hair,” bright and expressive eyes — and yup there’s a swishing tail as well — and he’s adorable in an offbeat way like so many other Pixar creations. We quickly see these sea monsters aren’t monsters at all, but a close-knit community of families who live in fear of those frightening beings in the boats that bob along the surface, using their nets and spears to capture various fishies.
The fantastic duo of Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan are perfectly voice-cast as Luca’s parents, Daniela and Lorenzo, who love their 13-year-old son and are perhaps overprotective (especially Mom), as they’re concerned Luca’s wanderlust will get him into trouble and they’ll never see him again. They’re not wrong. Luca is deeply curious about the world above the sea, and he follows his new friend Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) to the shore — and when the two young sea monsters set foot on the beach, they’re transformed into real boys! (Every time a sea creature turns into a human or the process is reversed, it’s a magical animation moment.)
Luca and Alberto eventually make their way into the local village— there’s an exhilarating scene where they keep leaping in and out of the water, transforming again and again and again — and though there’s a fountain in the square depicting a mighty hunter harpooning a sea monster, they find the place to be filled with wondrous sights and interesting humans of all shapes and sizes. They quickly set about achieving their dream of somehow acquiring a Vespa so they can travel everywhere without a care in the world. What could possibly go wrong? As long as the townsfolk don’t discover their true identities, they’ll be just fine. “Just don’t get wet!” says Alberto.
Luca and Alberto team up with a feisty and whip-smart local girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) to practice for the annual Portorosso Cup race, which has been won the last two years by the bullying Ercole (Saverio Raimondo). And they get dinners at Giulia’s house, where she lives with her gigantic and imposing and one-armed father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), a cook and fisherman who wields a sharp knife. Meanwhile, Luca’s parents have journeyed to the village and taken on human form in search of their son — but all these kids running around look the same to sea monsters. Will they even recognize Luca if they spot him?
“Luca” is primarily about the friendship between two boys, whether they’re in human or sea monster form, and how a seemingly unbreakable bond can be tested over the course of a summer filled with adventures and misunderstandings and conflicting desires about the future. It’s “Stand by Me” by the Sea.
Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer are terrific, as is the rest of the voice cast, which includes Sacha Baron Cohen as Luca’s Uncle Ugo, who lives in the darkest bottom of the sea and waxes rhapsodic about the joys of ingesting chunks of whale carcass. (It’s easy to understand why Luca would rather spend the season above water than with Uncle Ugo.) Director Enrico Casarosa is making his feature-length debut here, and he and the vast Pixar animation army have delivered a gorgeous and lovely coming-of-age fantasy with plenty of slapstick laughs, the obligatory heartwarming family moments and a friendship for the ages.