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‘Luca’ director taps his own endearing — and enduring — friendship for sea monster story

Two animated boys stand with their backs to the sea facing a cave in Pixar's "Luca."
Best friends Alberto and Luca share a secret: They are sea monsters from another world just below the water’s surface.
(Disney and Pixar)

Long before sketching his path into animation, Italian director Enrico Casarosa was a timid boy from Genoa whose family sheltered him. Adventure eventually beckoned by way of his childhood best friend, a kid with a zeal for thrilling exploits named Alberto, who dragged him out of the waters of overprotection in which he was submerged.

“Question No. 1 for me is, ‘Would I even be the same person had I not met that energy at that age?’ And then secondarily, there’s also something that attracts very different people to each other,” Casarosa told the Envelope. “We were so different, so we found our identity in what we took from the other person.”

Formative, and transformative, their kinship endured, though in physical absentia, even after their splendid summer days of boyhood buoyancy in the Cinque Terre region ended.

Several years after completing his Oscar-nominated short film “La Luna” at Pixar Animation Studios, Casarosa pitched several ideas for a feature project while serving as a story artist on “Coco.” Initially, his personal concept told of an Italian father and his American-born daughter traveling back to his homeland seeking reconnection.

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But in time, that endearing friendship, a foundational catalyst, swam to the surface of the filmmaker’s memory to become the basis for “Luca,” a radiant fish-out-of-water story, both figuratively and literally, about two young sea monsters and a human girl coming of age together in the fictional seaside town of Portorosso.

Eponymous hero Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) reflects a young Casarosa’s apprehensive personality, until he meets his own daredevil Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). Underwater they are both anthropomorphic scaled creatures, but out on land their bodies morph into human form. Dreaming of riding out into the world on a Vespa, the pair befriend plucky outcast Giulia (Emma Berman) to win a local triathlon-style race to use the prize money to buy a scooter.

To craft the stylistically distinct characters — with large curious eyes and a handmade look — and the rustic sun-drenched locations on the Italian Riviera, the team at Pixar departed from the director’s own drawings and myriad references to Italian culture and the medium of animation.

Instead, they turned to such inspirations as the Carta marina, a centuries-old map that illustrates Scandinavia and the edges of the Atlantic Ocean with renditions of mythical marine beings; the neo-realist oeuvre of auteur Federico Fellini, namely his sensibility for dreamlike sequences; and the fantastically poetic realms in the cinema of Hayao Miyazaki, specifically how the Japanese master immerses the viewer through the wondrous lens of his often juvenile protagonists.

“I wanted to be in Luca’s point of view to really make us appreciate and stop and look at the wind and the trees and the sun through beautiful laundry [on a clothesline],” Casarosa said. “It was not only a great way to look at nature, but a great way to make a love letter to the details of a small Italian town.”

Technical hurdles were prominent in scenes where Luca and Alberto’s transition from bright-colored amphibians to flesh-and-blood rascals. Significant character work went into the shading of their scales and their texture. Each transformation was conceived differently depending on the emotional tone of the moment: slower for instances of wonder and sudden for those of fright.

Halfway through the production of “Luca,” Casarosa had a course-correcting conversation with his friend, the real-life Alberto. The two had stayed in touch on and off over the decades living across the globe from each other. A profoundly bittersweet realization emerged from their exchange that reframed the heartening conclusion of the movie. Rather than softening the gut-punch of the inseparable buds parting ways, such hard truth was embraced on screen.

“We really started thinking about how in many ways we had to say goodbye to move on. We were so close and that might’ve held us up from going into the world and going towards our destinies,” said Casarosa. “We really found our way once we separated. It is natural.”

For Casarosa, a pillar of his platonic affection with Alberto was their shared status as unfashionable outsiders finding invaluable validation in their camaraderie when adolescent insecurities plagued them —like Luca and Alberto do in the film by chanting “silenzio Bruno,” to hush their inner voices of self-doubt, which they’ve dubbed Bruno.

Empathetic with anyone who’s ever felt alienated, he’s delighted by the reception from the LGBTQ+ community and their queer interpretation of “Luca,” as well as how those who’ve left home to sail after an aspiration have also identified with it. “We always thought this was about owning yourself, owning your difference, and flying your freak flag. I’ve been amazed at how many different flags have been brought up to the table that we hadn’t immediately foreseen,” Casarosa said.

Casarosa and his own fearless Alberto reunited for the Italian premiere of this top-tier Pixar wonder, a sublime tribute to fraternal bonds with an indelible permanence. Diving into the same Cinque Terre waters where they reveled in their youthful escapades before the tides of life pulled them apart, the duo came full circle. “It felt like we had one more adventure because of this movie, which was extra special,” recalled Casarosa.


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