“My best friend Alberto [Surace] was a bit of a troublemaker,” Luca director Enrico Casarosa says at a virtual press event, discussing how his feature-length Pixar debut is inspired by his childhood. “I was a bit timid, I had a bit of a sheltered life until I met him around [the age of] 12. He was wild and free to do whatever. His family wasn’t really supervising him. We couldn’t be more different. Alberto got me out of my comfort zone and pushed me off many cliffs, metaphorical and not. In fact, I might not be standing here had I not learned to chase my dreams, from him. That is the kind of friendship I wanted to talk about [on Luca]. Those deep important friendships many of us have that make us grow up. They change us, they help us find ourselves. That is the heart of Luca.”
Set in the 1950s Italian Riviera, Pixar’s newest movie, Luca — out Friday, June 18 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar — is the coming-of-age story of the titular young boy (voiced by Jacob Tremblay of Room fame). But Luca isn’t like most kids. He lives under the sea, sort of like Aquaman. His family — Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan voice Luca’s parents — are overprotective, just as Casarosa’s family was “a little bit too much there” for him. That’s because Luca’s kind is labelled “sea monsters,” and hence feared and hunted by the humans who live above the surface. Casarosa says: “[Alberto and I were] also a little bit losers and outsiders, so it felt right that we could use the idea of being sea monsters, as a way of expressing that we felt a little bit different and not cool.”
Born in late 1971 in the Italian Riviera — the north-western city of Genoa, the capital of Liguria, to be precise — Casarosa spent his summers in tiny fishing towns that inspire the fictional seaside town of Portorosso in Luca. Casarosa tells reporters: “[These fishing towns] have so many fun tales of, ‘Don’t go into that spot, it’s infested with a sea dragon.’ And you find out later that it’s just all tall tales to kind of protect their favourite fishing spot. Those ideas made me really wonder, ‘What if there was a community of sea monsters actually there? And the ability to transform into humans and kind of hide in plain sight?’”
Luca is also inspired by Italian folkore. That includes the legend of Tellaro, a small fishing village in Liguria. The story goes that thanks to a kid who was kind to an octopus, the cephalopod helped save the village from pirates by ringing the church bell before the attack. Everything in Tellaro is octopus themed, Casarosa notes, that he has always loved. Luca isn’t all Italian Riviera though. Casarosa was also inspired by the legend of Colapesce — in Italian, “pesce” means fish — from all the way south in Sicily, of a boy who loved to spend all his time in the sea. His mother would tease him that he would change into a fish. The Luca director also repeatedly spoke of his fascination for the design of old maps, some of which had sea monster symbols.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2019 — Luca is in fact the first Pixar movie that has been made entirely from home — Casarosa took the Pixar team to tour the Italian Riviera. They visited several fishing villages around Genoa, including Camogli and Portofino (that together with nearby Monterosso lends its name to the portmanteau “Portorosso”). Casarosa says: “I took our team [to Camogli] the first time we visited because it was close to my heart. My grandma used to live there so we would visit there. They have the best focaccia formaggio in the world. And they used to be ship makers so it’s actually a slightly bigger town [than Portorosso] but we took a few cues from it.”
That specificity of Italian culture is important to Casarosa, who moved from Italy to the US in his 20s. Luca naturally includes Italian gesticulation that is so intrinsic to their communication. The director also did his best to include the Ligurian dialect of the Italian language. And the rest was up to cheese, in a manner similar to how The Good Place (“motherforker,” “shirtballs,” and “son of a bench”) turned language restrictions into a source of humour. Casarosa adds: “We had fun doing a lot of kids swears. [In Luca, the children] swear with cheese. ‘Santa mozzarella,’ ‘Pecorino,’ ‘Gorgonzola.’ We really had a lot of fun with finding silly little kid versions of words.”
And of course, given Luca is a love letter to all things period Italy, it pays homage to classic Italian movies as well. Casarosa & Co. looked at a lot of Italian neorealist films, including Luchino Visconti’s 1948 drama La Terra Trema, Pietro Germi’s 1961 satire Divorzio all’italiana [Divorce Italian Style], Federico Fellini’s 1953 comedy-drama I Vitelloni, and Mario Monicelli’s 1958 comedy caper Big Deal on Madonna Street. Luca production designer Daniela Strijleva reveals they also looked at the works of French legend Jacques Tati, because “there’s so much charm and humour in his pantomime.” Her research for Luca also involved Italian painter Telemaco Signorini (he “captured the life and the water of the Mediterranean”), Strijleva tells Gadgets 360.
Luca is also filled with Italian songs from the 1950s and 1960s, with a few plucked from Casarosa’s childhood years in the 1970s. Pop sensation Mina (“Tintarella di Luna”, and “Città Vuota”) and singer-songwriter Gianni Morandi (“Andavo a cento all’ora”, and “Fatti Mandare Dalla Mamma a Prendere Il Latte”) feature heavily. There’s also space for Rita Pavone’s “Viva la Pappa col Pomodoro”, Quartetto Cetra’s “Un bacio a mezzanotte”, Edoardo Bennato’s “Il Gatto E La Volpe”, and a rendition of the soprano aria “O mio babbino caro”.
For Pixar, Luca continues its attempts at diversification — and bringing in newer voices. In 2017, we had Oscar-winning Coco, a tribute to all things Mexico and sporting a largely Hispanic cast. And then in December last year, we got the Oscar-winning Soul, Pixar’s first film led by an African-American protagonist. Casarosa’s Luca will be followed in March 2022 by Turning Red, from Oscar-winner Domee Shi (Bao), about 13-year-old Mei Lee who turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited. That will be Pixar’s fourth straight original film, with the Disney-owned studio having been criticised in years past for being overly reliant on existing franchises.
“Pixar is a living breathing entity in its own big way. And it has changed,” Strijleva tells Gadgets 360. “[With Luca,] Enrico is styling the story, he’s an original filmmaker, it’s an original story, he comes from Italy. We’re taking risks as filmmakers, and with the art and with the stories that we’re telling. But they’re not risks because it’s just highlighting to the world things that we love about Italy. Or about Mexico with Coco. And it’s just such a wonderful way to bring something beautiful to the world. It’s a joy, and very different from movie to movie, always learning something new. For me, obviously, Luca is kind of like the culmination of that.”
Luca is out Friday, June 18 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar worldwide. In countries without Disney+, Luca will release in cinemas. Available in English only in India with a Disney+ Hotstar Premium subscription.