Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG (rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence). On Disney+.
Occasionally, Pixar actually makes a kids’ movie. Sure, the animation studio’s entire library is supposedly meant for little ones, but the films so often turn out more like Psychology 101 class, delving into an adult’s hunt for purpose (“Soul”) or the functions of the human brain (“Inside Out”) with the goal of making nostalgic millennials cry.
In a welcome change of pace, its latest enjoyable flick, “Luca,” is seeking the approval of tykes — not Carl Jung.
The film, premiering Friday on Disney+, is not as action-packed, epic or thinky as many recent Pixar offerings, but it’s admirably simple and has a lot of heart.
The title character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) is a sweet, green sea monster, who lives near the coast of Italy with his mom (Maya Rudolph) and dad (Jim Gaffigan), and is bored of life as an underwater fish herder. He’s boundlessly curious about what goes on above the surface and is floored when garbage such as record players fall off a boat and plunge to the ocean floor.
Luca’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty. He’s got whosits and whatsits galore. You want thingamabobs? He’s got 20. But who cares? No big deal. He wants moooore!
Yes, Disneyphiles, “Luca” sounds an awful lot like “The Little Mermaid.” But “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet” and “The Little Mermaid” story, itself, was originally by Hans Christian Andersen. So what? It’s different enough. There aren’t any ballads here; nobody makes a bargain with an evil squid; Luca is not royalty, like Ariel, but a working-class sea hustler.
“Luca” is confidently its own thing.
One day, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), a rebellious little monster he’s never met before, coaxes Luca to sneak out of the sea against his helicopter parents’ wishes. And up there on land, the two boys undergo “the change” — that is, they immediately and temporarily become human while they’re out of the water. Adventure time!
They explore the idyllic town of Portorosso, and meet an outsider girl named Giulia (Emma Berman). Together, the trio trains for Italy’s version of a triathlon — swimming, biking and pasta-scarfing — to raise the cash to buy a sleek Vespa.
Director Enrico Casarosa and his team have done a gorgeous job of animating a seaside Italian village with piazzas, fountains and narrow, hilly streets. It’s a scary place for sea monsters, though — the town is filled with fishermen who tell tall tales of the dangerous beasts that lurk beneath the waves and locals long to harpoon ’em. So, Luca and Alberto do their best to pretend to be human and fit in.
They learn how to use a fork and that yelling “stupido!” at old ladies will earn you a slap in the face. Cute as it all is, there’s a dark turning point in the story that comes as a surprise — a satisfying one — which has to do with concealing your identity to assimilate into society, and asks what you sacrifice by doing so: family, friends, your own happiness? I could be reading too much into this, but perhaps another title for “Luca” could be “Gill Me By Your Name.”
For the most part, though, “Luca” is light and effervescent as a summertime Bellini, which is something parents can drink while the kids watch this.