“Luca” fulfills Pixar’s mandate of expanding its boundaries. The animated film, directed by Enrico Casarosa, is set in Italy, but the storytelling is influenced by Japanese films, especially the works of Hayao Miyazaki: subtle, beautiful and moving. It’s a strong Oscar contender for best animated film.
Casarosa was born in Milan and raised there in the 1970s-80s. But he set the film earlier, circa 1960, “because it becomes more timeless. And since SCUBA diving wasn’t so popular, the existence of an undiscovered sea-monster community was more plausible.”
There were also aesthetic reasons: The late 1950s and early ’60s had distinct style, from clothes to Vespas, and it was the Golden Age of Italian cinema, with films from Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Pietro Germi, among others.
The director says the friendship of Luca (around the age of 11) and Alberto (a few years older) reflects a bond he created at that age. “I was timid, sheltered. My friend had a messy family situation so he was very free. Those memories made me ask ‘Would I be the same person if I had not met him?’ That became the spark for the story.”
Luca and Alberto are “sea monsters,” who have grown up underwater but are exploring life on dry land in human form. The two meet a girl, Giulia, who gives Luca the courage to enter a local race.
The story is by Casarosa, Jesse Andrews and Simon Stephenson; Andrews and Mike Jones penned the screenplay. Andrews signed on early; Jones jumped from co-writing “Soul” to “Luca.”
Jones says, “When I came in, it was clear what the film should be about: the best summer in these two boys’ lives — and then they meet a third friend. We fought against suggestions that maybe Luca and Giulia become boyfriend-girlfriend. Giulia satisfies something more important to Luca: the ability to say ‘Yes, let’s go! We can win this race!’ ”
Andrews adds, “The movie is about friendship. Enrico kept saying ‘No, this is a pre-romantic time in one’s life.’ There’s an innocence to this and I think the movie feels bigger because of that.”
The coastal village is named Portorosso, an homage to Miyazaki’s 1992 “Porco Rosso.” It’s also filled with subtle Italian references: The town has a poster of Fellini’s “La Strada,” and Alberto’s Vespa has a photo of Marcello Mastroianni.
Casarosa learned to love Italian films through Japanese filmmakers.
“When I was young,” he says, “I fell in love with cartoons on TV, especially Japanese animation.” There were some Italian-Japanese TV coproductions, including early Miyazaki works like the series “Sherlock Hound,” about a crime-solving dog.
“I loved it, but I never made the connection to ‘I want to be an animator.’ It led me to seeing Miyazaki’s movies. I realized with animation, your drawing comes to life. I started looking differently at animation, like Disney movies and then Miyazaki’s ‘Castle in the Sky.’ His movies are playful and so wonderful.”
“Then I wanted to see films by Kurosawa, because he was a big influence on Miyazaki.” Casarosa soon discovered Italian and French classics, including works by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Jacques Tati.
With a theme of feeling alienated, people have described “Luca” as a metaphor for immigration, or homosexuality, or disabilities.
Says Casarosa, “It’s about any way that you feel different, however you proudly fly your freak flag. Luca leaving his home for Portorosso is a lot like me wanting to live in the U.S. It’s about his new discoveries.”
The movie defies conventional storytelling in another way (Spoiler Alert!): Luca finds a happy ending by enrolling in school.
Andrews says, “We talked about that a lot. We discovered the importance of those imagination sequences. When you see Luca opens a book, the world opens up for him.”
Jones adds: “Luca goes off into the world. Yes, it’s about school but mostly it’s about curiosity.”
Casarosa says, “This is not an easy sell, to tell kids that school is the perfect ending. So when Giulia shows him the books, we wanted to show the excitement of learning, the discovery of new things.”
Andrews and Jones praise exec producer Kiri Hart, saying she understood that this movie was trying to do something Pixar hasn’t often done, in terms of tone and style.
The two writers also praise Casarosa — and each other.
Jones says it was a true collaboration, formed out of mutual respect. “Writer relationships are often fraught in Hollywood. Mostly there’s no real partnership because you’re polishing somebody else’s work, and someone else will polish you.
“It’s wonderful that a place exists like the old Hollywood system, where you get a bunch of grumpy screenwriters under one roof; we complain about everything but we have each other’s backs. As a screenwriter, that’s hard to find. At Pixar, it’s built in.”