There is a reflexive impulse — also being fomented in the media — to view “Luca” as strictly gay allegory. Indeed, its plot echoes director Luca Guadagnino’s art-house hit “Call Me By Your Name,“ featuring a sheltered boy, Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), who forges an attachment with an older kid (Jack Dylan Grazer) in a small Italian town, but hides their relationship because his family might not condone it. There’s also the slow-growing specter that the older friend, Alberto, possesses a growing jealousy of Luca’s burgeoning bond with girl friend Giulia (Emma Berman).
In truth, the film’s metaphorical foundation is as diffuse as its cinematic influences. For me, Italian director Enrico Casarosa frames an immigrant’s story, featuring outsiders who yearn to enjoy the bounty of a foreign land but only if they assimilate into the guise and culture of people who fear and loathe those strange “monsters.” It is a powerful and timely undercurrent, the sort of film that Pixar Animation is based upon and excels at.
It is disappointing, then, that “Luca” does not live up to its own lofty standards. The titular tween is a sea monster living in a boring corner of the ocean and working as a solitary fish-herder. The occasional marine debris from passing boats lend hints to a new and exciting world above. But Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) indoctrinate Luca about the dangers of dry land.
Are there other cities or future in the sea world beyond Luca’s lone aquatic enclave? Is terra firma the only option for upward mobility? These questions go unanswered as Luca happens upon older urchin Alberto, who harbors dreams of both building a Vespa and a secret: for reasons that are not even cursorily explained, sea monsters can assume human form when out of the water and dry.
So Luca and Alberto sneak off to the seaside Italian village of Portorosso, Casarosa’s nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso,” about an Italian fighter pilot cursed to take the form of a pig. There the two, now appearing as homeless human lads, enter a village seemingly patterned after the Portofino Bay Hotel and full of pasta, gelato, and fountains. They befriend Giulia and Massimo, her laconic fisherman dad, and they enter a local triathlon in hopes of parlaying the prize money into their coveted Vespa — so unimaginative is “Luca” at times that it eschews the oh-so-obvious subplot of our protags grappling with how much to excel in the swimming portion of the race.
Mostly, though, the two spend most of this non-musical “Little Mermaid” dodging rain, seawater, and accidental spills for fear of revealing their true appearance. Alberto becomes a valued first mate to Massimo’s fishing business, which suggests all sorts of thorny morality questions that remain unexplored. And as for Alberto’s brooding envy over Luca and Guilia’s connection, well, nothing really comes of that. Instead, the film treads water amid a sea of animated tropes: the sassy gal pal, the dim bulb dad, the helicopter mom, the sage grandma, the late-film betrayal and reconciliation, and the mustache-twirling villain, which here is a pompadoured Italian cliché (Saverio Raimondo) who is the biggest threat to both win the annual race and exposure Luca and Alberto’s secret.
Casarosa, who helmed Pixar’s Oscar-nominated short film “La Luna,” draws inspiration from a deep pool of Italian folklore and cinema. But despite a wellspring of thematic and narrative possibilities, “Luca” settles for being just a charming, inoffensive fable capped by an action sequence that feels like it was lifted from another movie and a denouement that makes no realistic sense beyond a macabre subtext the film vigorously does not endorse.
Having set the stage for an insightful and enlightening parable, “Luca” is a literal fish-out-of-water tale that ends up being just surface deep.
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