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LUCA: 3 ½ STARS. “amiable look at finding a place to belong, above & below sea level.”   

Set on the Italian Riviera, “Luca,” the new film from animation giants Pixar and now streaming on Disney+, is a fantasy story about sea monsters with a beating, human heart.

Jacob Tremblay is 13-year-old Luca Paguro, a shy sea monster with a typical teenager’s curiosity. When he discovers items that have floated down from the surface he wonders what the world outside the sea has to offer. Despite the stories his parents, Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan), have told him of fisherman and the horrors of dry land, his free-spirited best friend Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer) has been above the water line and convinces the shy Luca to check out the terra firma,

On land, Luca and Alberto, who look like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Sigmund Ooze of 1970s Saturday morning television fame, transform from underwater creatures to human form. Blending in, they explore the seaside town of Portorosso, discovering the pleasures of pasta, gelato and most of all, the Vespa. The town bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) sets his sights on them but a young girl, Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman) befriends them and has an idea that may help them get their very own Vespa.

“Luca” is a fanciful coming of age story. The very specific story of sea monsters who aspire for more in their lives, has universal messages about find commonalities not differences, anti-bullying and never giving up. The morals are a bit on the nose—”Some people will never accept him, and never will, but he seems to be able to find the good ones.”—but they are kept afloat with imaginative animation and a simple story that zips along.

At its cold-blooded little heart though, “Luca” is about friendship. The kind of bond that happens between kids who are just figuring out the world and its possibilities. Director Enrico Casarosa, who directed Pixar’s 2011 Oscar nominated short “La Luna,” aided by fun voice work from Tremblay and Grazer, captures the youthful exuberance needed to make the story work.

“Luca” doesn’t have the emotional resonance of classic era Pixar—think “Up,” “WALL-E” and “Ratatouille”—but what it lacks in gut punch sentiment, it makes up for in imagination, action and the good-natured look at finding a place to belong, above and below sea level.

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