Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Disney+ Edition. Luca

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Luca

Year: 2021

Box office: $17 million 1

Plot: In the 1950s/1960s, Luca Paguro, a timid young sea monster living off the coast of the Italian city Portorosso, herds goatfish and is forbidden by his parents to approach the surface, as humans might hunt him. One day, Luca meets Alberto Scorfano, a fellow sea monster child who lives alone above the surface, claiming that his father simply is not around much. Alberto encourages Luca to adventure out of the ocean, showing him that sea monsters look exactly human when dry, but return to their true forms when wet.

Luca follows Alberto to his hideout, where the boys connect while making and riding a makeshift, fragile Vespa. Upon discovering their son’s actions, Luca’s parents plan to send Luca to live in the deep sea with his uncle Ugo. In retaliation, Luca and Alberto run away to Portorosso to find a Vespa and travel the world. The boys run afoul of Ercole Visconti, a local bully and repeat champion of the Portorosso Cup Race, but Giulia Marcovaldo, a young girl, helps them escape.

In hopes of winning the money needed for a Vespa, the boys and Giulia form a team for the triathlon, which involves swimming, pasta-eating, and biking. Unable to swim without revealing themselves, Luca and Alberto respectively take on the biking and pasta-eating races, while Giulia takes the swimming race. Ercole vows to beat the group. While the boys befriend Giulia’s fisherman father Massimo (who was born with only one arm), Luca’s parents head to the surface to find their son. Giulia teaches Luca about school, and the two bond over a love of learning, especially about astronomy. Alberto becomes jealous of Luca and Giulia’s growing friendship. When Luca starts ignoring Alberto’s advice, and tries changing their plans to going to school instead of traveling, he and Alberto fight.

In anger, Alberto intentionally reveals his true form to Giulia. Luca feigns surprise at the transformation, and a heartbroken Alberto is driven off by Ercole. Giulia later deliberately splashes water on Luca to calm him down, seeing his true identity; she then sends him away for his own safety. Luca attempts to reconcile with Alberto, and discovers that Alberto’s father abruptly abandoned him long ago, making Alberto think he was a bad kid who should not have friends. Luca sets out to win the Vespa on his own, to make things right.

After several mishaps, Luca takes the lead in the bicycle race, but is forced to take shelter when it starts to rain. Alberto arrives with an umbrella, but Ercole knocks it away and both boys are revealed as sea monsters. They flee Ercole, who now intends to harpoon them; Giulia helps by smashing her bike into Ercole’s, but she is injured. Luca and Alberto turn back to help her, and are defended from monster hunters by Massimo, who reveals that the boys are his friends. He also points out they have crossed the finish line and won the race. Other disguised sea monsters reveal themselves, including Luca’s family, and the townsfolk happily welcome them. Meanwhile, Ercole is humiliated by his henchmen, who were fed up with his abuse.

Luca and Alberto purchase a Vespa, but the latter sells it to buy a train ticket for Luca, allowing him to go to school in Genoa with Giulia. Luca’s family, Massimo, and Alberto see Luca and Giulia off at the train station, where they all promise to stay in touch. During the credits, Luca meets Giulia’s mother and attends school over the following year, while showing off his sea monster appearance, watching humans walk on the moon with Giulia on television the following year. Massimo becomes Alberto’s adoptive father, and Alberto and Luca’s family enjoy interacting with the humans in Portorosso. In a post-credits scene, Ugo talks to a stray goatfish about how great his life is in the depths of the ocean.

Animation:To prepare for the film, Pixar sent several of the film’s artists to the Italian Riviera for a research trip, during which they took photos of the area’s landscape and peoples.

Casarosa and the team began testing new animation concepts, hoping to bring playful silliness to the characters by taking away some of the typically large amount of detail. Areas of immediate focus were using a more 2D pose style, wider mouths with rounded, rather than angled corners, and multi-limb motions that brought a sillier feel to character movement. Referring to the multi-limb motion, Casarosa said: “It’s an old-fashion cartoon technique in some ways … It came out of the drawings, the essence of someone running extremely fast. We wanted to use the multi-limb technique in areas of the film where the characters were doing extreme physicality, where it would add to the personality of the silliness of the moment. There were only so many chances to use it. I wish there were more. But it was so much fun to use it when we could.”

Background: Director Enrico Casarosa has described Luca as a “deeply personal story”, being inspired by his childhood in Genoa, Italy, with the title character based on himself and Alberto on his best friend Alberto Surace. Casarosa has stated: “my summers were spent on beaches … I met my best friend when I was 11. I was really shy and I found this troublemaker of a kid who had a completely different life. I wanted to make a movie about those kinds of friendships that help you grow up.” He also declared that the film’s core is a celebration of friendship.

The sea monsters featured in the film were pulled from Italian myths and regional folklore, including the Tellaro octopus2 and local “little legends about sea dragons, creatures that either come to help or get into trouble”. Casarosa said: “I always found the old sea monsters on maps really fascinating. The mystery of the sea was so represented in the weird creatures that we used to draw. And that area has a lot of wonderful myths”. Production designer Daniela Strijleva stated: “We were really inspired by old sea maps. Some design details that carried through to the final film are things like the shapes of the fins of the sea monsters, how decorative their scales are, and the curves of their tails.” Casarosa also stated that the sea monster is a “metaphor for feeling different”.

Cast: Maya Rudolph returns as Daniela Paguro. Sacha Baron Cohen returns as Uncle Ugo.

Jacob Tremblay as Luca Paguro. He starred as Jack Newsome in Room. He also had roles in Wonder, Good Boys, Doctor Sleep, and voices Damian Wayne / Robin in Harley Quinn. Jack Dylan Grazer as Alberto Scorfano. They played the part of Eddie Kaspbrak in It, and reprised the role in the sequel. They also starred on Me, Myself, and I, portrayed Freddy Freeman in  Shazam! and Frazer Wilson in  We Are Who We Are.

Emma Berman as Giulia Marcovaldo. This is her film debut. She voices Winifred Wings on Go! Go! Corey Carson.Saverio Raimondo as Ercole Visconti. His credits include the series Esami and Dov’è Mario.

Marco Barricelli as Massimo Marcovaldo. He appeared in the series The Book of Daniel and voiced Pope Pius XII in the documentary Holy Silence. Jim Gaffigan as Lorenzo Paguro. He co-created and starred in a TV Land television series based on his life called The Jim Gaffigan Show. He appeared in  Super Troopers and 30 Years to Life. Gaffigan appeared on Broadway in That Championship Season. He has also voiced characters on the animated shows Bob’s Burgers, Shorty McShorts’ Shorts, WordGirl, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and the animated feature Duck Duck Goose. He joined the cast of Peter Pan & Wendy as Mr. Smee.

Marina Massironi as Mrs. Marsigliese. She appeared in more than twenty films since 1987 such as Three Men and a Leg, That’s Life, Not of This World, All the Moron’s Men, Bread and Tulips, Ask Me If I’m Happy, Do You Mind If I Kiss Mommy?, Agata and the Storm, The Ladies Get Their Say, and Letters to Juliet. Sandy Martin as Grandma Paguro. She is best known for her roles in the film Napoleon Dynamite and the TV series Ray Donovan, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Big Love. She appeared in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Dumbo.

Music: Originally, Italian musician Ennio Morricone was considered to compose the soundtrack, but died before he was asked to do so. On April 1, 2021, Dan Romer was revealed to be the film’s composer. The soundtrack includes songs by Mina, Edoardo Bennato, Gianni Morandi, Rita Pavone and Quartetto Cetra, and operas by Giacomo Puccini and Gioachino Rossini.

A113:The train ticket that Alberto gives to Luca at the end of the movie has “A113” on it.

Pizza Planet Truck:The Pizza Planet truck would have been an anachronism in the 1950s. To solve this problem, the truck is reinvented as a Piaggio Ape, a three-wheeled delivery vehicle made by the same company that manufactures the Vespa.

Merchandise:A series of books based on the film was published on May 14, 2021. Funko produced a line of Funko Pops based on the characters of the film.[48] A line of action figures and toy packs by Mattel was released on July 1, 2021. In June 2021, Trenitalia unveiled their Luca-themed livery for a Caravaggio train. To promote the film’s release, McDonald’s launched its promotional campaign by including one of eight toys free with the purchase of a Happy Meal.

Critical Reception:

  • Alonso Duralde of the TheWrap wrote: “Luca is sweet and affecting, capturing the bond that strangers can build over a summer, and how that friendship can endure. And like its shape-shifting protagonists, it’s got plenty going on beneath the surface.”
  • From The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney said that “the real magic of Luca is its visuals. The character designs are appealing both in the marine world and on land, and the richness of the settings in both realms is a constant source of pleasure. The play of light on the gloriously blue water’s surface is almost photorealistic at times, while a sunset spreading its orange glow over rocks on the shoreline makes you yearn to be there.”
  • Charlie Ridgely from praised the film for its uniqueness, feeling that it highly deviated from Pixar’s usual narrative formula and clichés but it didn’t make it “lesser” than other of the company’s classics like Toy Story and Up, highlighting the animation, the design of the Italian Riviera, the score and the story.
  • However, Philip Desemlyn, writing for Time Out, branded the film a “letdown”, writing “Charming but slight, Luca definitely isn’t Pixar firing on all cylinders. The studio’s trademark daring, pin sharp sight gags, and big ideas are missing from a fishy coming-of-age yarn that’s a little damp around the edges.”

My take: It looks great. Belle remarked to me that Pixar really has water down. The town looked lived in and authentic and the human designs. It’s also pretty funny, making me laugh several times. I would have liked to have seen more of the cat, as he was hysterical. It’s a coming of age story and I can see how it can be seen as a coming out story, which I think is valid.

Available on Disney +?: In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the film was released direct-to-streaming on Disney+, along with a simultaneous limited run at the El Capitan Theatre; it was released in theaters in countries without the streaming service.