screenplay by Jesse Andrews, Mike Jones
directed by Enrico Casarosa
by Walter Chaw Enrico Casarosa's Luca is a gentle love letter to the Miyazaki-verse set in a small, coastal Italian town called "Porto Rosso" in an obvious nod to Porco Rosso. The body of it, meanwhile, is parts of Ponyo, parts of Kiki's Delivery Service, bits and pieces of shots and sequences from Spirited Away, and even the scavenging scenes from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Luca's message of acceptance is general and loose enough to allow for a couple of innocuous interpretations, the obvious one being the Depeche Mode-ism of how people are people and shouldn't, therefore, get along so awfully, the more potentially impactful one a coming-out tale in which the residents of a cloistered community realize their friends and neighbours harbour secrets about their identities that they're afraid to reveal, lest they be ostracized, even murdered. It's tempting to go here, not just because the central drama revolves around the friendship between little Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and his buddy Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), but also because of the late-film reveal that a pair of elderly spinsters in town are identically coupled. There are also moments where it's clear that Alberto, without being interested in her, is jealous of the relationship blooming between Luca and Giulia (Emma Berman), the little girl who takes them in when they find themselves needing a place to stay. It's there if you want it.
Luca and Alberto are sea monsters in the Splash sense, wherein the air gives them legs (and human features) while water turns them into something between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a tadpole. This leads to a few slapstick sequences where random spills, fountains, and rain threaten to reveal their true identities to a town full of people terrified of sea monsters. There are troubling possibilities to this concept, of course, a certain "Shadow Over Innsmouth" premise that wonders if it's possible for these things to cross-breed with humans and, if so, whether there's the chance that, a few generations down the line, this place could be inhabited entirely by fish people. But the way Luca presents fish people is just a My Big Fat Greek Wedding pastiche of colourful ethnic personalities, so maybe that's already happened. Needless to say, Luca isn't interested in existential, Lovecraftian pursuits--just a pretty basic masterplot where Luca wants to explore the life up top with Alberto, a collector of whosits and whatsits galore, as his guide. His parents aren't happy with that idea, and in the film's single best bit of comedy, they invite Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen), a nightmare angler-fish monster from The Deep, to take Luca away with him for the season. Uncle Ugo isn't used to having other people to talk to. His reveries about "whale carcass" are by themselves worth the price of admission. Stay after the credits for more.
Cohen's two minutes are the best in the film because they're the most fraught. They're played off as a lark, but his "there's too much oxygen up here, not like The Deep" is the kind of thing that would've kept me up at night as a kid. Luca is more interested in being beautiful--and it's very beautiful. The animation is a wonder: slick, elastic, biological somehow in an enhanced, stylized way. Luca is a romantic and imagines himself flying in one of Da Vinci's machines. He dreams of touching the moon (which is a giant fish) and riding a magical Vespa across the world to see the sights he's only now becoming aware of. Luca's greatest wish is to go to school in Genova with Giulia. His most precious possession is a textbook on The Universe that his new friend has gifted him. And all around them is this lavish world inside a mainframe, where every cobblestone is lovingly detailed with its own cracks and imperfections. Note in the background of the piazza an Italian poster for Roman Holiday, which locates not only the time of the picture, but also the emotional impression of an entire nation that film provided in 1953. For every Roman Holiday, though, there was a Don't Look Now--and I wished dearly for more of the throwaway stuff like the revelation of a haunted patch of water the fish avoid. How does our family of lovable aquatic things deal with, you know, sharks and giant squid and stuff? There are no perils in these deeps. Just boredom.
The tension in Luca, such as it is, revolves around an annual triathlon Giulia wants to win, mainly to usurp evil bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), who has held the cup for six years running. The boys want to help her because they'd like to earn enough money to buy a Vespa. Are there shipwrecks they could loot for cash? It doesn't matter. I did like the moment where Alberto declares money to be useless, however, because money is indeed this movie's MacGuffin. There's room for some cleverness in the Raya vein to allow the boys to excel in the swimming portion of the race, but the filmmakers decline to go there. The Big Race, it turns out, is a bit of a MacGuffin, too. Luca is lighter than air--freeform and innocuous, gentle to the point of being actively disinterested in real conflict. Though Ercole threatens to harpoon our heroes a time or two, he's ultimately emasculated for having too great an affection for the wool sweater he wears around his neck. No, the greatest threat in Luca is from Uncle Ugo: how solitude in the great expanse of the limitless sea has made him both insane and so frail that too much air will actually kill him. There's nothing not to like about Luca, really, but it's worth considering that even the least of Miyazaki's films are more than just a pretty face.