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Luca (2021)

It can't be easy to be at the helm of a new Pixar film. The studio has become a victim of their own success so that each new release is held up against the impossibly high standards they themselves set. The shine has come off a little in more recent years, with an abundance of sequels and spin-offs leading to claims in some quarters they have lost their magic touch. It must be doubly tough for first-time director Enrico Cassarossa, his film Luca arriving directly after Soul, comfortably Pixar's most lauded film in years.

As with Soul, Disney made the decision to debut Luca via Disney Plus (without the additional cost of Premiere Access), although you may be lucky enough to see it in cinemas in some countries. Cassarossa's feature debut comes ten years after he wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated short La Luna. Inspired by his childhood memories of growing up in the Italian Riviera, it centres on the eponymous character's summer of adventures in a fictional Mediterranian town.

Living below the waves a young sea monster dreams of discovering what life is like on the surface. A chance encounter with an older monster boy named Alberto leads him to finally set foot on dry land. Disguised as humans, the two explore a nearby human town, discovering the delights of the surface world and befriending a local human girl named Giulia.

In pure story terms, Luca is one of the most straightforward Pixar films in quite some time, Neither as high-concept world-building wise as Onward nor as complex as Pete Docter's Soul, you would most likely have to go back to Pixar's much earlier films to find one quite this simple. This is in no way a criticism- several of the best of Hayao Miyazaki's best films, widely considered some of the best animated movies of all time, share this sense of narrative purity. This same simplicity will also help make the film more accessible,  particularly for younger audiences who Soul ran the risk of alienating at times.

If you're in the slightest bit media literate, you will probably see where it's going from the off. The second Luca's parents forbid him from going near the surface, you know he will be doing just that any minute. But it's in seeing how it unfolds that's the pleasure here.

The main plot driving the film forward is the training for and entering the Portorosso Cup, which Luca and Alberto think will allow them to buy the Vespa (scooter) they so covet. Its heart though is really in two (entirely platonic) love stories: the brotherly bond between Luca and Alberto and Luca's friendship with Giulia.

The no-nonsense simplicity of the storytelling also appears reflected in the film's design. The characters have a very classical 'cartoony' look to them. They're all rounded edges and oversized hands and feet. They have a real sense of chunky weight to them, it even looks as if it could have been made in stop-motion. In fact, they more closely resemble figures from an Aardman film than a typical Pixar. A holidaying Wallace and Gromit would not look out of place here. Several characters appear in both human and sea monster forms, and the way the designs are adapted with a sense of consistency is extremely deftly handled.

Deceptively simple as the characters may be, Luca brings a real sense of reality to its environments. The most fantastical setting is in the sea monster's world we are shown in the opening act, but even here the water and lighting effects are sublime. Luca's underwater world feels suitably distinct from the setting in Finding Nemo and its sequel, so it doesn't feel like Pixar is repeating itself. But it is on leaving the sea that the visuals really take a step up.

If Cassarossa wanted the film to be something of a love letter to his former homeland then consider it a success. It makes Italy look utterly stunning on-screen- beautiful blue seas, wide-open skies and rolling green hills. Even better is the small coastal town of Portoarossa, the location for the majority of the film's events.

Portarossa may be a fictional place, but it's one very much drawn from reality. With its narrow streets and houses painted in washed-out colours, it will look very familiar to anyone who has visited a real  Mediterranean town. It's so richly detailed, you can almost smell the sea breeze.

The sets and production design are just part of what goes into the film's exceptional creation of time and place. Washing lines hanging from windows, gelato shops, children playing football in the public square and people gesticulating wildly when they talk- everything here just paints a picture postcard-perfect vision of Italy. It's quite a specific time as well- the presence of Vespas, radios, black-and-white television and faded movie posters would seem to place this somewhere in the 1950s or 60s.

Through Luca's eyes, the human world looks magical. To him, the everyday life of the people of Portorosso is strange and exotic (and maybe a little bit scary) just as his world would be to them.

The characterisation here isn't overly complex with characters conforming to archetypes for the most part. Luca, a wide-eyed and curious soul is a likeable lead, with Alberto's outward confidence and bluster covering his vulnerability. In Giulia, we have a feisty and tomboy-ish female lead- a common character type in modern animation, but surprisingly rare from Pixar. Giulia's fisherman father, with his bushy moustache and eyes hidden by eyebrows, has a gruff, taciturn exterior that hides a surprisingly soft centre. Kudos is due too, for the decision to give him a missing arm, a welcome act of representation. And as much you'll enjoy loving these characters, you will also love to hate the film's antagonist. Sweater draped permanently over his shoulders, arrogant attitude and a pitiful attempt at facial hair- the character design does half the work for you. Permanently flanked by two sycophantic flunkies, he's every inch the classical movie bully.

Special mention also has to go to Luca's "strange see-through uncle" Ugo, a deep-sea dwelling character. He makes only a very brief appearance (and then a post-credit return) but in both design and performance, (a hilarious turn from Sacha Baron Cohen) he feels like he's almost from an entirely different film. He leaves quite the impression, despite such limited screen time.

Luca may not have the same lofty ambitions as some of Pixar's more high-brow efforts. Rather than making you think, Cassarosa is more concerned with making you feel. You don't have to have ever lived in or visited Italy, somehow this film will evoke a sense of nostalgia for a time you never lived through. With its seemingly endless summers, it takes you to an idealised vision of childhood that will more than likely remind you of your own. Much has been made over the years of the influence of Studio Ghibli over Pixar's artists, but it has never felt quite appropriate as it is here. In particular, it felt to me like a spiritual cousin to Kiki's Delivery Service.

With overseas travel completely out of reach for many right now, this feels like it could barely have come at a better time. With its sun-dappled visuals and summer-vibe, Luca feels like a holiday in movie form.  If you're lucky enough to live somewhere it is screening in cinemas, this would definitely benefit from the big screen. For the rest of us though, get on Disney Plus, get streaming and let the good feelings wash over you.



IN A NUTSHELL: Sunny, funny and full of heart, Luca is Bellissimo!