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Luca preview: How a real-world friendship inspired Pixar’s sea monster story

Fresh off a pair of Academy Award wins for its 2020 animated feature Soul, Pixar will bring its next adventure, Luca, to the screen in June 2021. The film follows the adventures of a pair of young friends in a seaside town on the Italian Riviera who are harboring a big secret: They’re both sea monsters who have left their underwater home to explore the human world.

Directed by Enrico Casarosa (La Luna) and inspired by the summers he spent on the Italian coast with a rebellious childhood friend, Luca features the voices of Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Jack Dylan Grazer (It) as Luca and Alberto, respectively. After being warned against leaving the sea by his family, the curious, 13-year-old Luca encounters Alberto, a fellow sea monster fascinated by life on the surface. The discovery that they can pass as human while out of the water kicks off a series of adventures that shape their lives and who they become while building the foundation for a long friendship.

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Digital Trends got an early look at 30 minutes of footage from Luca and spoke to Casarosa about the very personal story behind Pixar’s next, charming film.

Digital Trends: Pixar’s films are typically inspired by a certain set of universal experiences, but Luca also seems very personal for you, Enrico. What was the inspiration for the story?

Enrico Casarosa: I always think of our stories as two sides coming together. There’s the personal, the heart, the part that’s going to make you emotional and make you care. And then there’s the fantastical and imaginative that makes it a Pixar movie and transports you somewhere.

So these two different ideas came together in the inspiration for Luca. One part of it is a real place where I grew up, and how beautiful that place is. I wanted to take people to the Italian Riviera. And the other part was a “what if?” idea. What if there are sea monsters hiding off the coast, and what if there’s more than meets the eye with them?

And in this case, the audience is introduced to the Italian Riviera through Luca’s experiences, since it’s new to him, too. 

Exactly. I love that we have a protagonist who experiences this little Italian town for the first time, because it gave us the opportunity to have this wonderful, lyrical, romantic look at the region. And we could really create a love letter to the details — from the beauty of the wind in the trees to a little sign in town.

How did your own childhood friendship shape Luca’s experience in the film with Alberto?

My best friend Alberto and I met when I was around 11 years old and it really changed my life. I was an introvert, so I really wanted a protagonist that struggles with his own wishes. He is curious and creative, but he’s not allowing himself to explore those parts of himself. So I thought that would be really interesting: Looking at how we help each other change and grow.

When I started talking about my friendship, it seemed like a lot of people could relate to the idea of opposites attracting and cross-pollinating, and kind of being architects of who we become — particularly when you spend so much time together. I really wanted to talk about those special friendships along with this crazy, mystical side of it.

When the story is based on a personal experience, you can’t often adapt it exactly as you remember it and make it work. So how did the story evolve from your childhood memories to what we see on the screen?

Stories like this usually change based on what we discover the story wants to be. When you pitch it the first time, it’s more like a sketch of the idea — the heart of it. But then over time, you see what it wants to be and what the characters want to be. The heart of it — in this case, the relationships — doesn’t change too much.

For example, we started with a trio of sea monsters originally. But we ended up feeling like it was more important to focus on just Luca and Alberto’s relationship. That was one little adjustment: We realized that the goofy third wheel we started with was fun and all, but it didn’t let us focus on the really important relationship. That’s how you start finding out what the movie wants to tell you.

What are some of the ideas and lessons you’re hoping audiences will take away from the film?

The big one for me is an appreciation for the friendships of our youth. When you’re a kid, there is so much to learn from your friends. And you can find the courage to help each other, too. Asking for help from your friends is such a courageous thing.

On the other side, as kids, there’s so much insecurity. It’s not just about fear. [In Luca], we talk about having to “silence the Brunos in your head” as this wonderful, silly way to talk about the imposter syndrome we all feel and the voices of insecurity in our heads. It felt very meta for us to talk about that in the film, because we still deal with them as adults. It’s not like they completely go away.

And then the other side, of course, is that these sea monsters ultimately need to show themselves, right? They need to be okay with showing their differences. And that wonderful metaphor always felt right. As a kid, you feel odd and a bit out of sorts. So that becomes a big journey in our movie: Getting to a sense of self-acceptance and acceptance in these two very different worlds.

Pixar’s Luca will premiere June 18, 2021, on the Disney+ streaming service.

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