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Luca movie review: Drift away with Pixar's sun-drenched Disney Plus daydream

Available on Disney Plus and available to rent and buy in August, this sunny coming-of-age tale is the vacation you've been missing.

Feel the sun on your face in Luca.

Pixar

Luca is streaming now on Disney Plus, but think hard before you press play: The last thing anybody needs in these troubled times is a new Pixar movie. Yes, they're heartwarming fables, but are you feeling strong enough for a devastating emotional punch like the opening scenes of Up or the climax of Toy Story 3? 

Fortunately, Pixar's buoyant new flick is one of the studio's gentler outings. Luca is a breezy tale of a mythical sea creature exploring the sun-dappled loveliness of the Mediterranean coastline, gifting us with a heady reminder of summers past. It's an ode to childhood friendships that also offers a potential glimpse of post-COVID freedom to once again venture out on carefree sun-drenched holidays (or at least imagine them).

Luca was released June 18, and unlike some other blockbusters will remain on Disney Plus permanently rather than disappearing after 30 days. If you're not a Disney Plus subscriber, it's available to rent or buy digitally and on Blu-ray and DVD on Aug. 3. 

Young Luca is an iridescent undersea fish-herder living with his parents beneath the tranquil turquoise waves of an island feared by local fishermen. This young sea monster is intrigued by the flotsam and jetsam of the surface world but terrified by the "land monsters" his mom and dad warn him about.

Luckily the pearlescent sea-dwellers transform into human form when they're on dry land, which means nervous Luca and his braver chum Alberto find themselves exploring the Italian Riviera of the 1950s. Obsessed with Vespa scooters, they become entangled with a local bully and a spirited new friend as they set out to win a traditional local race. But they'd better not get wet, because the slightest splash morphs them back into shimmering green sea creatures. It's like The Shape of Water on vacation with The Talented Mr Ripley, filtered through a childhood memory.

The opening 10 minutes gently introduce this colorful world and show Luca's place within it, but without any of the calamitous emotional stakes that often shake things up in Pixar films. There are nearly 25 minutes of Luca and a new buddy goofing around before anything actually happens, as the film eases you in with gorgeous sun-dappled animation and charming comedy rather than nailing you to your seat like the devastating opening scenes of Finding Nemo or Up.

Life's always better down where it's wetter, take it from me...

Pixar

That may or may not be influenced by the times in which Luca was made. Not only was the film's release disrupted by the pandemic -- it's skipped theaters for a release date on Disney's streaming service -- but so was the production process. Pixar animators and filmmakers made it almost entirely from their homes over the past year, with voice actors recorded on their iPads from living rooms across the world (including Italy). 

Luca is infectiously voiced by Jacob Tremblay from the films Room and Doctor Sleep, palling around with a bad influence voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer from It and Shazam. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan play the parents, although they don't have much to do except some light worrying and scolding. The low-stakes storyline is breezy rather than captivating, although that does mean even a relatively light twist lands hard because it's so unexpected. Of course it's all building to a spectacular finale complete with a heartwarming emotional catharsis.

Life's always better when you've made a Vespa.

Pixar

While the story may be relatively emotionally unchallenging, the winning characters and alluring setting entice you into a pleasant reverie. The film plays out in a tranquil haze of sun-dappled pastoral pastels and Italian bops (from the jaunty likes of Mina and Quartetto Cetra). Occasionally things melt into psychedelic daydreams like the colored rainbows on the backs of your eyes when you close your eyes against the sun.

Genoa-born storyboard artist and director Enrico Casarosa helms the film with obvious love for the locale, having previously directed similar short film La Luna, which was attached to Brave in 2012. To add to the Mediterranean flavor, the end credits thank the estate of Italian film legend Marcello Mastroianni. Could there be anything more summer-ready than a Disney movie inspired by vintage Italian cinema? Fellini meets The Little Mermaid. Just call it Finding Antonioni.

The pastoral pastels and dreamy vintage feel give Luca a cozy feel of its own. If you squint, however, you can detect more timeless and delightful influences: a touch of Wes Anderson's vibrant palette, a splash of Studio Ghibli's achingly gorgeous coming-of-age storytelling, and a doughy thumbprint of Aardman chunkiness to the character design. And of course, it's drizzled with the life-affirming whimsy that unites all those influences.

Luca may be a light confection, but the scenic and nostalgic daydreaming is delicately seasoned with delightful slapstick and memorably oddball details. Look out for the weirdo fish-uncle from the deep dark depths voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, or the negative voice in your head being called Bruno. Expect to hear "Silenzio, Bruno!" in the playground this summer. 

Luca is a swooning shot of summer sun in animated form, and perfect for lazing round remembering better days.