MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Whenever the end credits roll after a disappointing animated film, I wonder how so many people could have committed themselves to a concept that seems so lame and uninspired. But then I think about my 5-year-old grandson whose frequent rewatches include Minions and Spies in Disguise. Maybe kids operate with different standards.
My grandson couldn’t make it through Luca. We agreed on this one.
There is nothing inherently wrong about a new take on The Little Mermaid, with a 13-year-old sea monster replacing an older teenage mermaid and the enjoyment of seacoast village friendship taking precedence over island romance. But just about everything in Luca’s fish out of water tale seems like sushi – undercooked.
The film begins by showing us Luca (voiced by Jacob Trembley) and his parents (Jim Gaffigan and Maya Rudolph) living as happy creatures under the sea. Although young, Luca has a job as a shepherd of younger fish, but he is intrigued by what he might find if he ventured out of the water. The movie doesn’t do much world-building here – of course fish and sea monsters co-exist.
Things get even lazier, however, when Luca figures out what he has to do to become a human being – just get out of the water! That’s it! By chance he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a slightly older teen water monster who has already discovered the nifty trick of transformation. They overhear in the village that there are fishermen hunting down sea creatures, so they need to be on their guard against getting wet. The two boys conveniently ingratiate themselves with Giulia (Emma Berman), a fun-loving girl and her nurturing family.
As the trio of friends bop around the island, the boys dream of one day owning a Vespa motor scooter. To earn the money for a used Vespa they decide to join forces and enter the annual Portorossa Cup Trifecta. This is a strange kid’s contest that evokes a lazy church picnic – you win by competing in a bike race, making a short swim, and eating a lot of pasta. Although Luca is just getting used to his land legs and has never ever ridden a bike, he has a chance at this, doesn’t he? He’s got eating pasta down, even if his table manners are sloppy.
Oh, and I forgot to mention – Luca’s parents are also on land looking for their runaway son. Yes, they turn into people, too. It’s not hard – you just get out of the water and find a towel.
There’s a local bully who is the primary rival in the race, but he is underwritten as well.
Some have opined that Luca is representative of the struggles that LGBTIA youth have with identity and that Luca and Alberto may be developing a prepubescent boy crush. If this interpretation is helpful to viewers, that’s okay by me, especially since it makes it a more memorable experience than I encountered.
The film is beautifully rendered and set in the early 1960s. The voice cast is fine, although it’s a strange mix of non-Italian accents and overplayed Italian accents (of “That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!” variety). The director and lead animators spent much time recreating the village of Portorossa and they work in visual references to the films of Fellini and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Most viewers won’t care about these details.
The story would have been better with just a bunch of Italian kids enjoying a summer of innocence together before growing up. But once you eliminate the sea creatures with no princesses in sight, there are no toys. That’s a line that Pixar and Disney just won’t cross anytime soon.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: A sweet story about childhood friendship, but that’s about it.
One pitchfork: For typical childhood rivalries, including bullying.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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