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by Peter Sobczynski

"School’s Out"
4 stars

Perhaps in response to criticism that their output was becoming dominated by sequels to proven successes instead of the original works that made them a brand name in contemporary animation, the last two releases from Pixar, “Onward” and “Soul,” were undeniably ambitious works that grappled with weighty issues, including coming to terms with death and what it means to have a soul, in smart and intelligent ways. The only problem is that while it was easy enough to admire those films, it was much tougher actually like them because they were trying so hard to do something different that they never quite figured out how to make themselves entertaining at the same time. Their latest effort, “Luca,” is nowhere near as thematically ambitious as its predecessors—at least on the surface—but what it may lack in that area, it makes up for in terms of basic entertainment value by telling a charming, small-scale in a bright, colorful and ultimately endearing manner.

Set in (and occasionally under) the Italian Riviera circa the 1950s-early 1960s, the film tells the story of a young boy named Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) and the experiences he has over the course of one life-changing summer. The difference between this and any number of other coming-of-age stories of note is that Luca is a sea monster who lives under the water with his loving-but-overbearing mom (Maya Rudolph) and distracted dad (Jim Gaffigan) and demonstrates a curiosity about the world above the water line that his mother tries to stamp out for good. One day, while exploring, he comes across another sea monster, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) who says that he lives up on land and pulls an initially reluctant Luca up to the surface with him to prove it. Once on dry land, the two are instantly transformed into human form and stay that way until they get wet again.

Luca’s mom is concerned about this new friendship and when she suspects that Luca has been on the surface, she arranges for his weirdo uncle (Sacha Baron Cohen) to take him to the depths of the sea for the summer. Before he gets sent away, Luca takes off and he and Alberton make it to the fishing village of Portorosso, where they look like everyone else and where their particular odor is not that unique either. Alberto talks Luca into a plan in which they will acquire that most coveted of possessions, a Vespa scooter, and spend their lives roaming the countryside without having to follow anyone’s rules or orders. After trying to build their own scooter doesn’t quite work out, they determine that the best way to get a Vespa is to win the Potorosso Cup, an annual local triathlon in which participants swim, eat a giant load of pasta courtesy of the company sponsoring the race, and then race a bike up a steep local hill.

This plan puts them in the path of local bully Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), who doesn’t want anyone to break his streak of victories, and tomboy Giulia (Emma Berman), who joins with the two in order to take Ercole down. At the same time, Giulia unintentionally begins to threaten the bond between Luca and Alberto when the latter becomes jealous of the friendship developing between her and Luca. To add more complications to the proceedings, Luca’s parents have arrived to look for their son as well but since they have no idea what his human form looks like, they go to oddball lengths to try to determine if any of the local kids milling about are him.

Instead of striving to make its thought-provoking points, as was the case with “Onward” and “Soul,” “Luca” is content to take a more laid-back and carefree approach not dissimilar from the one taken by its young heroes as they gambol through their summer, at least until the season ends and certain hard truths must at last be faced. As a result, “Luca” may come across like second-tier Pixar because of its lack of ambition but its best moments are so charming that you will hardly notice. The film does an impressive job of capturing both the lightness and intensity of childhood friendships that can forged in an instant and come apart just as quickly in the face of even the most seemingly minor of hiccups. I also really enjoyed the setting of Portorosso, which looks like an Italian Rivera village’s hyper-idealized vision of itself and which practically becomes a character in its own right. It may not exist in the real world, of course, but the spell that it casts is so undeniably beguiling that many viewers may find themselves wanting to visit after watching the film.

As long as “Luca” is moving to the beat of its own drummer and without any cares others than the immediate pleasures of childhood, the film is pretty much a delight. However, when weightier matters begin to impose themselves on the material, it doesn’t quite have the strength to support them and things begin to sag. Although the film does not quite live up to the initial speculation that it would be the first Pixar film centered on LGBTQ characters (which began when the basic premise was announced and some noticed certain similarities between it and “Call Me By Your Name”), there are points in which it tries to use their secret identities as sea monsters as some kind of all-purpose metaphor for being “different,” but does so in such a vague manner that it never quite comes off in the way that it might have if it had been a little more specific about what it was trying to say. I also got a little frustrated towards the end as the big race began to take precedence over the evolving nature of the friendship between Luca and Alberto, which was infinite more interesting.

That said, while “Luca” will probably not go down as one of the top classics in the Pixar canon because it lacks the conceptual genius of something like “Up” or “Inside Out,” it is nevertheless the most purely endearing original film that they have done in a while. Instead of trying to knock viewers out at every turn, it has a nice and relaxed feel that comes across as a perfect fit for this particular moment in time. It probably will not do much in the way for selling toys, video games and breakfast cereals in the manner of most animated films these days (though Disney will be leaving a lot of money on the table if they don’t go for a pasta tie-in), but what it may lack in commercial opportunities, it more than makes up for in terms of sheer likability and charm.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34444&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/17/21 16:46:05
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7/02/21 Bob Dog Best Pixar movie since Brave. 4 stars
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