It’s been 10 years since Enrico Casarosa was nominated for an Oscar for his debut short film with Pixar, “La Luna.” Now, his debut feature, “Luca,” is about to hit Disney+, and his film is solid proof that the venerated animation studio has changed enormously in the last decade.
Casarosa is just one of the new faces at Pixar stepping up from shorts to features with not just original ideas, but also deeply personal stories that break from the more high-concept films that have made the studio iconic. Last year, Dan Scanlon directed his second film, “Onward,” that dealt with brotherhood and father figures. And next year, Domee Shi will follow up her Oscar-winning short “Bao” with her debut Pixar feature, “Turning Red,” which draws from her Asian Canadian heritage.
In speaking with TheWrap, Casarosa said he’s been able to flourish under the “wonderful” leadership of “Soul” director Pete Docter and is excited that Pixar is “embracing a different look” and more “diverse voices.”
“He’s been fostering us, mentoring us. To be honest, even from afar, I said to myself, ‘If he could do it, he’s a bit of an introvert, you don’t have to be completely an extrovert to make one of these.’ He’s the one that kind of gave me the feeling of, maybe I can do it,” Casarosa said of Docter. “You can tell from his movies. They’re wonderfully quirky and taking chances, and you can see that leadership in guiding us and mentoring us new directors that he’s not wanting to smooth out those wrinkles that make us who we are.”
“Luca” draws closely from Casarosa’s childhood growing up in Genoa and spending summers in the seaside Cinque Terre region of Italy. It’s quite literally a fish-out-of-water story about two young sea monsters, Luca and Alberto, who become human boys upon stepping onto land, but risk revealing their true identities anytime they’re exposed to water.
In place of the movie callbacks and pop culture references that Pixar has become known for, the substance and detail of “Luca” lies in the more personal touches that Casarosa knows best. For instance, the film’s daydreaming sequences that take us inside Luca’s head are inspired by the fantastical elements of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” while other parts of the town are littered with homages to Fellini’s wife and to Giulietta Masina, the star of movies like “Nights of Cabiria.” Casarosa also snuck in jokes that only Italians familiar with the Ligurian region’s dialect would understand, like a sign by a mechanic’s shop that translates literally to “garbage tire.”
“It felt like a great opportunity to make a love letter to small-town Italy with all the beautiful language. There’s so many things that I was so proud and happy to be able to share, like, let’s use this word, it’s a wonderful strange word, or this opera piece would be wonderful for the scene,” Casarosa said. “Especially with a fish out of water, we have a kid who has never experienced this world. And through Luca, we can look lovingly with interest and with attention and curiosity at this Italian world.”
Casarosa’s personal directorial nods even involved memories straight from his childhood, which give the film an added bit of emotional depth.
“Here’s something I remember from my father. He would adjust my hair in a certain way because he didn’t like too much of a tuft. It always drove me crazy, because it was his subtle way of being controlling,” Casarosa said. “So when I’m directing an animator with Daniella, Luca’s mom, she’s loving, she wants to protect him, but maybe she should take something off his hair or touch his hair. It became something I remember so clearly — let’s put these little touches that make me think, that’s how she’s expressing ‘I’m trying to keep you here.'”
The resulting film, in early reviews, has been held up as far simpler, more modest and yet still full of charm, compared to the more ambitious existential themes of “Soul” or the grand set pieces of “Incredibles 2.” One critic compared it to Pixar doing its take on Studio Ghibli, “evoking the low-stakes seaside magic of ‘Ponyo’ in particular” — and sure enough, sitting on Casarosa’s bookshelf is a small Totoro figurine from one of Studio Ghibli’s classic animated fantasies.
That freedom to infuse his own personality into “Luca” has made the film’s years-long journey worth the wait. After losing the Oscar in 2012 for “La Luna,” Casarosa got roped into other Pixar projects and spent years pitching and honing the precise story that would become “Luca.” His final pitch came in 2015, and things didn’t start cooking until a full year later. By the time they were in the midst of full production, the pandemic hit and the team feared the film might not be completed at all.
Now, in another drastic shift for Pixar, “Luca” will premiere exclusively on Disney+ on Friday rather than in theaters, where the studio’s films have historically thrived. Though Casarosa is disappointed about losing out on a theatrical release, he’s optimistic that the film will now safely garner a global audience, and he’s excited for the opportunity to easily watch “Luca” with its Italian-language dub.
“What I do like about it being put on Disney+, it’s in the spirit of generosity to me. Here’s a little bit of the world. You might not be able to go and dive into the ocean at this moment,” Casarosa said. “I hope this is a dive into a big, beautiful, crystal-clear water and bring some joy and light. It brought us some light during the dark years of making it.”