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The key theme of “Luca,” Pixar’s funny and enchanting new feature, is the acquisition of knowledge — and the realization of how liberating, if painful, that knowledge can be. The charming insight of this movie, directed by Enrico Casarosa from a script by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, is that nearly everyone has something to learn. Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a kid who finds himself in a strange new land, must master its mystifying rules and traditions to survive. He has an impetuous friend, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose know-it-all swagger is something of a put-on: Like Luca, he’s lonely and adrift in a world that turns out to be bigger, scarier and more wondrous than either of them could have imagined.
For their part, the animators at Pixar have imagined that world with customary ingenuity and bright-hued splendor, which makes it something of a shame that most audiences will have to watch the movie on Disney+. (It’s playing an exclusive June 18-24 engagement at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood.) The filmmakers’ most exquisite visual creation here is Portorosso, a fictional village on the Italian Riviera presumably not far from Genoa, Casarosa’s birth city, which inspired his 2011 Pixar short, “La Luna.” In the director’s hands, Portorosso plays host to a parade of well-worn but lovingly deployed cultural clichés. The townsfolk navigate the sloped, cobblestoned streets on bicycles and Vespas and enjoy a diet of gelato, pasta and seafood. And speaking of seafood: The fishermen who trawl the surrounding waters always do so with harpoons at the ready, lest they encounter one of the fearsome sea monsters rumored to dwell just offshore.
The movie confirms and debunks those rumors in the opening minutes, plunging beneath the surface and into a neighborhood of underwater dwellers whose webbed and scaly humanoid bodies might well seem fearsome at first glance. But within seconds of meeting Luca — whose natural curiosity spurs varying degrees of protectiveness from his worried mom (Maya Rudolph), absent-minded dad (Jim Gaffigan) and slyly antiauthorian grandma (Sandy Martin) — it’s clear that there’s nothing remotely monstrous about him or the mildly cloying, sometimes hilarious family sitcom he initially seems to be inhabiting.
Fortunately, “Luca” enters brighter, bolder territory at precisely the moment Luca himself does. In a scene that brings to mind Pinocchio experiencing his first moments of sentience or Ariel testing out her new legs, Luca swims to the surface and discovers a world of wonderment, including the wonderment of his own body. Outside his aquatic habitat, his scales, fins and tail magically vanish and he takes on human form. Every sea creature like him possesses these adaptive powers of disguise, including his new buddy, Alberto, who’s been living above the surface for a while and gives Luca a crash course on ambulatory movement, direct sunlight and other dry-land phenomena.
That makes “Luca” a fish-out-of-water comedy in the most literal sense, governed in the classic Pixar tradition by whimsical yet rigorously observed ground rules. A splash of water will temporarily restore Luca and Alberto (or parts of them) to their underwater forms — a shapeshifting conceit that allows for a lot of deftly timed, seamlessly visualized slapstick mischief. Early on, at least, the two friends have little to fear as they run around a deserted isle, basking in the sunshine and dreaming of future adventures on the open road. Only when their curiosity gets the better of them do they muster the courage to sneak into Portorosso, risking exposure and even death at the hands of locals who are more sea-fearing than seafaring.
Various farcical complications ensue, some of them cutely contrived but all of them deftly worked out, and enacted by a winning array of supporting players. These include a gruff but hospitable fisherman, Massimo (Marco Barricelli), and his plucky young daughter, Giulia (Emma Berman), who persuades Luca and Alberto to join her team in the local triathlon. That contest, whose events include swimming, biking and (of course) pasta eating, provides “Luca” with a conventionally sturdy narrative structure and an eminently hissable villain named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo).
Ercole’s last name is Visconti, one of countless movie allusions the filmmakers have tucked into the margins of the frame, most of which — the town’s sly nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso” aside — will prove catnip for lovers of Italian cinema in particular. There’s a boat named Gelsomina, a likeness of Marcello Mastroianni and a whole subplot devoted to fetishizing the Vespa, burnishing a vehicular-cinematic legacy that already includes “Roman Holiday” and “La Dolce Vita.” And those are just the explicit, deliberate references. When the trailer for “Luca” dropped months ago, more than a few wondered if Pixar had made a stealth PG-rated riff on “Call Me by Your Name,” Luca (!) Guadagnino’s drama about the pleasures of first love and the lush Italian countryside.
They have and they haven’t. Like most kid-centric studio animation, “Luca” has little time for romance and no room for sexuality. Luca and Alberto’s bond, though full of intense feeling and subject to darker undercurrents of jealousy and betrayal, is as platonic (if not quite as memorably cheeky) as the odd-couple pairings of Buzz and Woody, Marlin and Dory. And yet the specific implications of Luca and Alberto’s journey, which forces them to hide their true identities from a world that fears and condemns any kind of otherness, are as clear as water — too clear, really, even to be classified as subtext. “Luca” is about the thrill and the difficulty of living transparently — and the consolations that friendship, kindness and decency can provide against the forces of ignorance and violence.
Liberating oneself from those forces is a matter of individual and collective responsibility, and “Luca” is nuanced enough to understand that everyone shoulders that responsibility differently. Luca’s mom and dad, voiced by Rudolph and Gaffigan as lovably bumbling helicopter parents, must let go and loosen up, but their instinctive caution is hardly misplaced. Alberto’s stubborn devil-may-care attitude offers an admirable corrective, but that fearlessness is shown to mask a deeper sort of denial, an insularity that refuses to consider the full scope of the world’s possibilities. What makes Luca this story’s namesake hero is that he’s able to absorb the best of what his friends and family pour into him; though small and lean (and sometimes blue and green), he stands at the point where their best instincts and deepest desires converge.
By the same token, “Luca” the movie may look slight or modest compared with its more extravagant Pixar forebears; certainly it lacks the grand metaphysical ambitions of the Oscar-winning “Soul” (whose director, Pete Docter, is an executive producer here). But that may explain why it ultimately feels like the defter, more surefooted film, and one whose subtle depths and lingering emotions belie the diminished platform to which it’s essentially been relegated. “Luca” is big in all the ways that count; it’s the screens that got small.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.