A version of this story about “Luca” first appeared in the special animation section of Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Pixar’s “Luca” is charmingly low-key. It’s the story of a pair of sea monsters, Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who transform into humans when they crawl out of the water. They visit a nearby human village, make new friends and dream of owning a Vespa. That’s really it. But its simplicity, especially for a Pixar film, coupled with a striking art style, feels downright revolutionary.
Unsurprisingly, it took a long time to finesse such a stripped-down style, according to director Enrico Casarosa. Casarosa, who directed 2011’s charming Pixar short “La Luna” and became a mainstay of the so-called Pixar braintrust that weighs in on each new production, began to shape a loose idea for “Luca” in 2016. The initial version, he said, was about a return to Italy.
“It was a little bit about my daughter and I and her being half-Italian, and the issue of immigration — of wanting to fit in, maybe forgetting a bit where your roots are from,” Casarosa said. “And the new generation sometimes is actually more interested in that part of that identity.”
As the story evolved, the focus shifted from a parental relationship to a friendship (and the sea monsters came in, too). “It became a whole other personal story,” Casarosa said. “Not about my daughter and I, but my best friend and I.” (And, yes, his best friend was also named Alberto.)
An earlier version of “Luca” ended not with a bicycle race, but with a giant Kraken destroying most of the town of Portorosso. “When we tried those, the story that we all felt strongly about was the relationship,” he said. “It wanted to be smaller.” Casarosa admitted that he still got notes asking if he could make it bigger. His response? “Remember, we want an intimate movie.”
The process of shaping the film got easier when, during production, John Lasseter, the former Pixar bigwig, left the studio and was replaced by Pete Docter, the soft-spoken filmmaker behind “Inside Out” and “Soul.” “(Lasseter) had great instincts but it was a little more dogmatic,” Casarosa said. “You’d feel like, I have to do this.” Casarosa found himself being more “honest” with Docter and in turn felt more supported. “Pete embraced my vibe,” he said.
Docter was also instrumental in letting Casarosa experiment with the movie’s handcrafted, almost stop-motion style, which was inspired by Aardman films and the work of Hayao Miyazaki. “It was a bit of 2D inspiration, but still immersive,” he said. “I didn’t want it to get in the way of story or the moment.”