Take it from us: You do not want to watch Luca on an empty stomach. A heartfelt celebration of Italian culture, Pixar's latest original feature (which splashes onto Disney+ this weekend), will make your mouth water with its unbelievably realistic depictions of gelato, fresh pasta, and large sandwiches.
The movie's director, Enrico Casarosa (who helmed the 2011 Oscar-nominated short La Luna), hails from the city of Genoa in the Liguria region of Italy, where pesto was originally invented. "I do love pesto. I would have to say pesto is really up top," he tells SYFY WIRE during a virtual junket interview when the conversation turns to the topic of his favorite native dish.
"I'll give you two," the filmmaker continues. "There's trofie al pesto, which is a specific pasta from Genoa. We made trenette al pesto [in the film], which is very similar. It was visually more interesting because they're much longer, so we wanted them to have fun with the messiness. And then there's Pansoti con Salsa di Noci, which are a type of a ravioli from Genoa with walnut sauce, which is delicious. I would highly recommend it. We would usually make it at Christmas. We rolled the pasta and put in spinach and ricotta filling, and then you have this wonderful creamy walnut sauce on it."
Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!), who provides the voice of Luca's confident new friend, Alberto Scorfano, says that choosing a favorite Italian meal is "like picking a child." Nevertheless, he states that his "go-to is penne Bolognese, but I just love pasta, man. I love pasta."
Inspired by Casarosa's best friend from childhood, Alberto takes the timid Luca Paguro (voiced by Room's Jacob Tremblay) under his wing, teaching him all about the surface world. Did we mention that the young boys are also sea monsters? Similar to Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Luca defies his overprotective parents — Daniela (Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Peter Pan & Wendy's Jim Gaffigan) — to explore the endless joys to be found on dry land. As an Illinois native, Gaffigan is partial to Italian-American creations like Chicago's famous deep-dish pizza.
"It has the layer of sausage and you have to wait too long for it. And then when you finally get it, you eat one piece and you're full, but I still keep eating. And then I'm kind of like in physical pain from eating too much," the comedian says. "When I was dating my wife and we went to Rome, we landed and we were walking around and went to the equivalent of a 7-11. We got something to eat because we were just hungry. And it was amazing! So, there is something about Italy where you're like, 'Really?! Even your gas station food is good?!'"
Luca and Alberto eventually decide to run away from home, which brings them to the seaside fishing town of Portorosso (a nod to Casarosa's love of the vintage Studio Ghibli title Porco Rosso) — a town whose citizens are obsessed with hunting sea monsters. It's here that they befriend Giulia Marcovaldo (Go! Go! Cory Carson's Emma Berman), a rambunctious girl who spends the summer vacation with her gruff fisherman father, Massimo (The Book of Daniel's Marco Barricelli).
"I really like capelli d'angelo, which is my favorite pasta. It's angel hair pasta," Berman tells us. "I like making it too because it's smaller, so it doesn't go out of the pan or catch on fire from the pan. I actually once did that accidentally when I was making pasta. I just really like thin noodles usually, but there are such delicious things. There's all the desserts. There's gelatos and all the delicious things like pizzas and so, it's very hard to choose, but I have to say that my favorite part of the Italian food would be pasta."
After bagging the role of Guilia, Berman visited her local Italian restaurant and connected with one of the waiters there. "We had a couple of little Zoom sessions where he was teaching me a little bit of Italian and he introduced me to an Italian language teacher," she says. "I just love how musical it is. "There's a melody to it. It's literally the most beautiful language I've ever heard. It's no wonder why they sing most operas in Italian."
Despite the fact that the entire movie unfolds on the Italian Riviera, Casarosa had no problem employing a predominantly American voice cast, particularly when it came to the sea monster side of the story. "The sea monsters needed to be more foreign to this world, so we realized that we needed to find a film logic," he explains. "It's the kind logic that if you look very deeply, there's maybe some breakage, but it's the [kind] that you don't think about. And so, we realized that the sea monsters could be more neutrally American ... I think we got leeway with our protagonists because they are foreign to this world and don't understand it completely, so we liked that contrast a little bit."
Thanks to the COVID-19 health crisis, however, the director was able to cast an international net and hire genuine Italian talent like Barricelli and comedian Saverio Raimondo, who plays the arrogant Portorosso bully, Ercole Visconti. "Wherever we could, we needed the Italian," Casarosa adds. "And that interestingly happened when the pandemic hit. We realized, 'Well, actually, we're recording everybody remotely. Let's call Italy,' which is not exactly something we did right away because we normally work closely. So, that was an interesting silver lining of the limitations of the pandemic."
For the most part, the cast recorded their lines from home. "My parents and I built this little soundproof booth studio and that was really cool because they sent me the equipment," Berman reveals. "We had Zoom sessions and I recorded in my little booth and so, that was kind of fun because I got to be the sound engineer, too!"
"They sent us all this equipment to set up in my mom's closet and me and my mom [were] trying to figure this out," Grazer recalls. "Never give an assignment to me and my mom to figure out because after 30 minutes, we're gonna be barking at each other. But it was fun ... There were times when I would yell, 'HELPPPP!!!' and 'ANDIAMOOO!!!' [My neighbors] were probably freaked out. That went on for a year. They were probably like, 'What's this kid up to?! What's going on?!'"
While Casarosa wanted his actors to get certain pronunciations right for words like "Alberto" and "spaghetti," he still made sure to allow them to bring their own unique flavor to the performances.
"He gave me a lot of free rein to explore the character and improvise," Grazer says. "There's a lot in the movie that's improvised, which is really cool to see in animation because that shows that they would add another way to mold the animation into what I said. That feels like a cool contribution ... Enrico really put us on a loose leash and let me really play with the character and have fun."
"Something that [Enrico] taught me was to trust my instincts as an actor because he let me improvise sometimes and that was really cool," Berman adds. "Because I get to say, 'Hmmm, how would I say this line?' Even though it was usually pretty similar to Guilia where I got to add a little joke to the end of it, or just trust my instincts and that was something very important that he taught me."
"If Pixar asks you to do something, you're kind of like, 'Thank you.' It's not just their success, it's their consistency of quality," Gaffigan concludes. "You know that it's not gonna be garbage."
Speaking of garbage, let's talk whosits and whatsits galore (You want thingamabobs? We've got 20!). As mentioned earlier, Luca shares some DNA with some of its Mouse House forebears like The Little Mermaid, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. Just like Ariel, Luca yearns to go ashore and is utterly fascinated by the human objects that sink to the bottom of the sea.
Casarosa, who isn't shy about copping to the similarities, explains that the goal was to separate his project from what's come before by making it as "specific" as possible. To achieve that goal, the director needed Portorosso and its surrounding waters and beaches to be the spitting image of what you'd actually find in Italy.
"There's this color of the water — that's why I had to take the team there to show them. There's cobalt blue…It [also] goes quite steep. There's mountains and sea. It's wonderfully unique and specific," he says. "All the beaches, they have a lot of pebbles instead of sand, for example. The sounds are different. When we were down to choosing the wave sound, it was very hard to find the right one. It took us a while ... There's some echoes of The Little Mermaid, but I feel like specificity [and] bringing a true world and finding the real wonderful details are what separates it."
The specificity of Luca's undersea home ended up tying in perfectly to the movie's overall themes of growing up and finding one's self. "When you're in it, you can't see very far and we thought, 'Perfect! We have a kid who wants more. We have a kid whose world shouldn't be expansive,'" Casarosa finishes. "'It's beautiful, it's colorful, but what if we filled that beautiful contrast once he's outside on the surface?' So we used these contrasts to our advantage. Now the sounds are sharp, the focus is all around him and so, I loved that we could play with the contrast there, too."
Luca dives onto Disney+ this coming Friday, June 18. Unlike Cruella and Black Widow, the film will be completely free to stream for subscribers without the need of an additional Premier Access fee.