You can't have too many musical montages in Luca, the spectacular new film from Disney-Pixar that doubles up as a cruel reminder that there will be no Italian vacations for you in the immediate future. Not unless you mask up and get that vaccine.
Set in a sleepy seaside town in the Italian riviera and directed by a man whose almost comically authentic-sounding name (Enrico Casarosa) overcompensates for his lack of feature directing experience, Luca doesn't have the emotional wallop of some of the studio's earlier work, but is still miles ahead of most toxic entertainment geared towards kids these days.
Watch the trailer of Luca here
Inspired equally by the films of Federico Fellini and Hayao Miyazaki, Luca is a lot like its protagonist — a hybrid.
On the surface, it's the sort of wholesome American entertainment that audiences have grown to expect from Pixar, but the undercurrent of sadness that runs through most of the studio's films has been replaced by a fountain of optimism. It's no wonder that Luca is in many ways about the fleeting nature of youth, and the importance of nostalgia. It's also a less-strange version of The Shape of Water, but let's not get into that.
Jacob Tremblay and his Canadian accent star as the titular Luca, a young sea monster who discovers that he can transform into a human being if he ventures above the surface. But the town of Portorosso is a dangerous place, whose inhabitants have long harboured a deep-rooted fear of the sea-dwellers, although they haven't ever really seen any. It's this sight-unseen prejudice against the 'other' that makes Luca a film of great relevance.
On one adventurous trip to the surface, Luca meets Alberto, a runaway sea monster who has been living by himself in a crumbly old lighthouse. They bond instantly. Soon, Luca and Alberto are solving the mysteries of the universe, making purchases mere moments after being introduced to the concept of money, and together dreaming of one day owning the most alluring of all man made artefacts: a shiny Vespa.
It'll be a means of escape — from a life of oppression, of fear, and of being demonised by men and women who don't even know them. Luca and Alberto decide that the only thing left for them to do is to somehow make enough money to buy themselves a ticket out of town. So they befriend a local girl named Giulia, and before they know it, they're eating pasta dinners at her home and preparing to participate in the annual triathlon.
There's genuine warmth and humour in these scenes, as the three misfits find that even though they didn't have much of a choice in their past, they can certainly decide what they want their future to be.
The queer-bating is a bit of an issue, though, especially if you take into account the film's (very obvious) hat-tips to the films of Luca Guadagnino, particularly Call Me by Your Name. Incidentally, Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Alberto, even starred in Guadagnino's similar coming-of-age series We Are Who We Are.
The once-infallible animation house still seems to be finding its footing in the post-John Lasseter years. While Soul clearly struck a chord with audiences, Onward was a rare disappointment. Luca, armed with Dan Romer's unabashedly whimsical score and some truly stunning visuals, will be difficult to resist.
Unlike Soul, and so many other recent Pixar films, Luca isn't aiming for photorealism; it's the rare cartoon movie that looks and feels like a cartoon movie. Even though the technology exists, and has been proven to work time after time, Enrico Casarosa and his team seem to be going after a more stylised look — a combination of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. Not once do they try to ape the actual movements of a film camera, or, like Toy Story 4, give the impression that physical lenses were involved. All this contributes significantly to the dreamy texture of the film's themes.
An entire generation of children probably would not realise this, but most people don't have their childhoods conveniently documented on iPhones. Memories — hazy, indistinct, fleeting — are all that they have. Luca is for them.