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Luca review: Pixar’s Italian sea monster story is sweeter than gelato

Great storytelling can do more than trigger an emotional response. It can evoke powerful olfactory memories and tickle your senses in ways that bring the audience deeper inside the world in which the tale unfolds.

Therein lies the beauty of Luca, Pixar’s animated feature about a pair of young sea monsters whose adventures on the coast of Italy are so thoroughly immersed in the sights and sounds of the region that its wonderful coming-of-age tale should come with an advisory: Best experienced with pasta.

Directed by Enrico Casarosa and based on his own summers spent on the coasts of Genoa, Italy, Luca casts Room actor Jacob Tremblay as the shy, titular sea monster whose aquatic life off the coast of Italy is thrown into chaos when he encounters a free-spirited teenage sea monster named Alberto (It actor Jack Dylan Grazer). Their friendship not only draws them out of the water and into the world of humans, but also pushes the introverted Luca out of his comfort zone and teaches him how to silence the doubts and fears we all grapple with in the transition from child to young adult.

Alberto and Luca looking across the water at the town in Pixar's Luca.

Much as he did with his beautiful, Oscar-nominated short film La Luna, Casarosa handles the emotions and themes at the heart of Luca with a surprisingly light touch.

Pixar’s films have a knack for generating intense emotional reactions, but they can also feel a bit manipulative in setting up the tragic scenarios that elicit those responses. The death of a family member or friend is a recurring plot point in the studio’s films, to the point where there’s often some psychological prep work that needs to happen before sitting down for a Pixar movie.

While Luca delivers some powerful emotional moments, loss and trauma don’t drive the film’s plot the way they do other Pixar films. The simple joy of Luca and Alberto’s friendship is what propels the story forward from their first encounter on through the final credits, and it’s endlessly entertaining to watch how their contrasting personalities shape their experiences in this new world they’re exploring together. The characters in Luca experience loss, but their story arcs aren’t built on it — and this makes the film feel more optimistic and fun than the studio’s typical, heavier (emotionally speaking) fare.

Of course, it helps that so much of that fun is unfolding in an environment that clearly draws from Casarosa’s personal trove of memories, painstakingly recreated for the film, right down to the unique music, foods, and language of the region.

Alberto and Luca as sea monsters inPixar's film.

Luca is ostensibly set in the late 1950s, and the Italian music of that era fills nearly every scene, adding an authenticity that gets even stronger when you combine it with all of the other sights and sounds of the Italian coast that Casarosa and the film’s creative team built into the story. Handcrafted wooden signs move in the ocean breeze while background characters sip espresso and gulls hunt for bits of lost bread in the streets. Luca is a film that’s not afraid to pepper its characters’ conversations with bits of Italian slang and devote unusually long amounts of screen time to its characters eating, and these creative decisions make the film better in ways that wouldn’t necessarily work in other stories.

It’s one thing to yearn for a particular type of food after watching a cooking or baking show, but that you’re likely to end up desperate for pasta al pesto, gelato, or any number of other Italian culinary touchstones while watching an animated feature speaks volumes about the level of detail in Luca and the film’s authentic, immersive qualities

Luca and Alberto in the street in Pixar's Luca film.

From its unapologetically regional sounds, foods, and slang, to the way Casarosa and the film’s talented cast of voice actors brings this tale of childhood friendship to life, Luca is a marvelously unique film that strikes just the right balance between simple fun and the sort of emotional journey we can all relate to in one way or another. Anyone who’s had a childhood friendship can relate to Luca (or possibly Alberto), and the details that fill the film’s setting and story only make it feel more authentic and resonant.

You don’t need to have a love for Italian food or music to appreciate Luca and its charming story of two friends helping each other figure out who they are, but a little gelato will only make it sweeter.

Pixar’s Luca will be available on the Disney+ streaming service June 18, as well as in theaters where Disney+ is not available.

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