Jacob Tremblay's Luca and Jack Dylan Grazer's Alberto in Pixar's 'Luca'
| Credit: Pixar

Luca (streaming on Disney+ today) is small-fry Pixar, a sunny Mediterranean trifle set in a postcard Italian village by the sea. But it's a winning one, too: the tenderhearted tale of a blue-gilled fish-boy who dreams of dry land, and all the things that human boys there get to do. (Ride Vespas, eat gelato, go to school.)

All his young life, Luca (voiced by Good Boys' Jacob Tremblay) has been taught by his wary parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) to fear the tail-less, two-legged beasts who live above the surface. But curiosity keeps pulling him toward the shore - and a bold fellow fish-boy named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) gladly drags him the rest of the way. Alberto is a classic Huck Finn type, a freckled swashbuckler and cheerful fount of misinformation. (What are those twinkling lights in the sky? Anchovies! How does gravity work? Walk off that cliff and find out!)

Both boys are entranced by motorbike ads torn from magazines, and soon their attempts to build their own lead them into the nearest town, where the preening local bully (Giacomo Gianniotti) scoffs at their desire to win the annual Portorosso Cup - an extremely Italian triathlon involving a swim race, a pasta-eating contest, and a bicycle route. But the pair find at least a temporary home when a scrappy little girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), who lives nearby with her kindly fisherman father, takes them both in as de facto foster brothers and fellow teammates in the race.

While the boys happily plunge into their new lives above the waterline, they also have to caution against getting wet: Every passing rainstorm or backsplash from a boat means exposing their true fishy nature to the townspeople - including Giulia's boulder-sized dad - who have learned to fear and loathe the sea monsters they've always suspected are lurking offshore, even if they've never found conclusive proof.

Luca's parents, too, won't let their son go lightly; they'll take human form to find him if they have to, and their plan is to send him down to the safety of his uncle (a great, way-too-brief Sacha Baron Cohen cameo) in the deepest trenches of the ocean, where's there's nothing to do but passively inhale whale carcass all day. If they can catch up to him before the race, there will be no Vespa, no land friends, no more learning about astronomy and cats and pesto.

That's truly about all there is to the plot, but Italian-born director Enrico Casarosa, a longtime staffer at Pixar, infuses every frame with a pure kind of love for his home country (he's pretty much the best tourism-board proxy since Luca Guadagnino exported Call Me By Your Name). The story's bright swirl of Pixar pixie dust, jangle soundtrack, and gentle lessons on accepting otherness and learning to move past fear feel like a temporary passport: a sweetly soulful all-ages dip in la dolce vita. Grade: B+

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