With the exception of the dead-friendly, adult-numbing “The Good Dinosaur” (2015), “Luca” is as much trifle as Pixar Animation Studios ever invented. That sounds like a tough judgment, but given Pixar’s recent track record, there are worse things to be said. My own feeling is far from universal, but it is that in the last five years some of the most ambitious Pixar projects have gotten off track (like the Mexican Day of the Dead fantasia “Coco,” which was beautiful, but was dragged out, or “Incredibles 2”, which despite reflex-like raves was much less incredible than the first). “Luca,” set in Italy in the 50s, is humble to some degree and at times it feels generic enough to be an animated feature film from almost any studio. But it’s a visually beguiling small-town nostalgia trip and an absolutely pleasant fish-out-of-the-water fable – literally, because it’s about a young sea monster who longs to go ashore.
The early parts take place under the sea, and if you think “The Little Mermaid” meets “Finding Nemo” you are not far off. “Luca” is a film for children that blatantly recycles old formulas. Nevertheless, it is built around an original little trope of fairytale nonsense: In this film, when a sea monster like Luca (Jacob Tremblay) with his electric-blue faunal hair and his aquamarine skin and creature from the gill ears of the Black Lagoon transforms the water instantly turn into a human form; When he goes back into the water, he’ll come back. If this to-and-fro metamorphosis feels too comfortable (and isn’t fully explained), the movie still enjoys it, especially when the imagination becomes a constant threat to break the camouflage of the sea monsters.
Luca desperately wants to go ashore, despite the terrible warnings from his parents, the tinny Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and the burly Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). Creeping up a rocky beach, he becomes a curly, wide-eyed child who looks Italian, but in the performance of Jacob Tremblay (from “Wonder”) sounds like an American commonplace child. He meets the teenager Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is like the sea monster version of a Jonas brother and has been ashore for some time and lives as a real boy in an abandoned stone castle column. Alberto is alone except for all the stuff he collects, but with his daring arrogance he has a dream: he will do anything to own a Vespa! That’s right, the legendary Italian scooter that was introduced in 1946.
“Luca” is a bit colorless until the two boys arrive in the sloping fishing village of Portorosso, with its crooked pastel-colored buildings and winding alleys, its sun-dappled town square with trattoria and pescheria, its poster for “La Strada. “So quaint! So picturesque! Fellini meets De Sica meets your loyal post-war travel agency! Once there, they discover that there will be a local competition, the annual Triathlon Portorosso Cup (swimming, eating pasta, riding a bike), the winner of which will receive a prize worth enough money to buy a Vespa. Luca and Alberto ally themselves with the spirited, flame-haired Giuilia (Emma Berman), who they can get into the race, and spend some time in their house, trembling under the mostly wordless looks of their massive, brooding, one-armed razor-sharp fishing father Massimo (Marco Barricelli) who lives in fear of sea monsters and makes the most delicious pesto noodles that our two heroes literally cram each other in the face as they have no idea how to use a fork.
From time to time a leak over the ceiling or a glass of water lands on her skin, revealing her psychedelic colored sea monster self. But only for a few seconds; they’ll snap back right away. Aside from this pasta scene, they don’t seem to have much trouble getting used to acting like people. “Luca” is the first feature film by Enrico Casarosa, who made the acclaimed Pixar short film “La Luna” in 2011, and while his images have a cheeky bravura (especially in a fantasy sequence spun from the glory of the Vespa) , the script, by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, is pretty thin stuff.
The two boys help Massimo with fishing because they know exactly where the fish are. Luca learns that what he took to be “fish” in the night sky are actually stars. And Luca’s parents, saddened by his disappearance, appear in their own human form in Portorosso and drop water balloons on children to see if any of them transform into their son again. The villainous Vespa owner Urkule stands around the market square, scornfully and mockingly. Someone in the studio had to send out a memo saying this wasn’t exactly a conspiracy – it’s a series of incidents that kill time.
The film finally arrives at the Portorosso Cup and is having fun when Luca tries to complete the swimming part of the triathlon in an old diving suit, only to find out that he is sitting on his bike and started to rain, which brings these sea monsters back into their natural environment I will transform back. Will the city accept them? “Luca” solves this question in a simple and engaging way as everything else. It’s a friendly gimmick of a movie, but it can’t help but wonder if Pixar is losing its golden touch.