Film & TV

Molto Bene, Luca Is an Italian Treat

Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (Jacob Tremblay) in Luca. (Pixar)
Pixar strikes the right note for this post-pandemic summer.

I hereby nominate “Silenzio, Bruno!” as the catchphrase of the summer. In Disney/Pixar’s frolicsome new charmer Luca, Bruno is the voice in your head who tells you that you can’t succeed at something, or that you’ll die if you happen to ride your bike off a cliff. Say “Silenzio, Bruno!” and carry on chasing your dream. (In the context of the movie, Bruno is always wrong, but don’t drive off a cliff, kids.)

That kind of chipper, can-do spirit permeates Luca (streaming on Disney+), a literally and figuratively sunny offering set in coastal Italy that mostly avoids feeling like a middle-aged dude’s psychotherapy session explained in a cartoon, à la Inside Out or Soul. How’s this for a change: an animated movie that isn’t wringing with angst for the human condition? Not that this is Tom & Jerry, though: The movie gently puts across messages promoting cross-cultural tolerance, the importance of education, and the need for fathers in boy’s lives.

Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a green-blue creature who lives in the sea with his family, who warn him against the dangerous consequences of swimming up to the surface. The movie doesn’t waste too much time getting him up on land, where he instantly metamorphoses into what appears to be an ordinary adolescent human boy. A fellow shapeshifting amphibian, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who seems to be slightly older, maybe in his mid teens, takes Luca under his wing (er, fin?) and the two become fast friends. Living in a fishing village, they set about achieving exactly the goal you would have if you were a boy in, say, 1965 Italy: getting a Vespa scooter.

Luca and Alberto try to make one of their own using old wooden crates, but the result doesn’t fully satisfy. So they cautiously head into town with an eye toward acquiring a real Vespa. Befriending a (fully human) girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), a tomboy who could have been played by Tatum O’Neal in the Seventies, they do battle with a bully and discover that they can win a Vespa by triumphing in the Italian version of a triathlon: swimming, bicycling, and pasta eating. Maybe that’s not an official Olympic event, yet, but it’s no stranger than curling. Alberto, puzzled by human food, quickly learns that he’s in deep: Giulia informs him that there’s a different kind of pasta used every year, so in order to train properly he has to master the art of eating all of them. Mangia, mangia.

The catch is that everyone in town is poised to kill the two fish-boys. They happen to have wandered into a place obsessed with dispatching “sea monsters,” as their kind are known. And Giulia’s own dad is a macho, mustachioed, one-armed, sea-monster-killing machine: the Italian Quint. He’s got a sinister cat (also with a mustache) named Machiavelli, which is an excellent cat name.

To make things extra dicey, the boys turn back into their fishy selves whenever they get water splashed on them, or if it rains. If you care to stretch your allegorical muscles a bit, you may find a metaphor pushing for tolerance of transgendered individuals, although the parallel doesn’t work perfectly. (Trans people don’t usually switch back and forth between their two identities several times a day.) But the movie is, typically for Pixar, broad enough that it seems unlikely to offend anyone: The third-act message is no more complicated than “Let’s not fear folks who are a little different.” No worries about being coshed on the head with woke messaging, as in Frozen II.

A debut feature from director Enrico Casarosa, a 51-year-old animator who worked his way up through the ranks, and written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones from a story by Casarosa and Simon Stephenson, Luca is full of enchanting Mediterranean sunshine, peppy Italian pop tunes that sound like the pre-rock Sixties, and amusing Italian stereotypes involving histrionic moms, huge mustaches, and huge mustaches on histrionic moms. (Okay, that last one was my idea, but they can use it in the sequel.) A crazy uncle to Luca, who lives at the gnarliest depths of the sea and seems to have been brain-damaged by the experience — Sacha Baron Cohen turns in a hilarious cameo as “Ugo” — strikes me as a wicked spoof of southern Italians as viewed by northern Italians. (And lo, Casarosa is from Genoa, in the north.)

Casarosa’s film makes a virtue of being simple and unchallenging. Despite the mortal peril in which the lead characters spend half of the movie, the overall mood is light and larkish rather than tense. The self-doubting aspect of some of the other Pixar movies is refreshingly absent. For our first post-pandemic summer, that approach strikes me as more than okay. It’s as if Luca is replying “Silenzio, Bruno!” to that voice inside a screenwriter’s head that says “Maybe I should write about my deep-seated pain.”

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