Italy Of Our Dreams: How 'Luca' Director Enrico Casarosa Drew From And Went Beyond Hayao Miyazaki's Distinct Style [Interview]

Luca is the closest Pixar has gotten to making a Studio Ghibli film. It's not particularly in the visuals, though there are plenty of similarities — the characters look like they'd be comfortable strolling through Kiki's Delivery Service, albeit in a 3D version of it — but in the feeling. There's a warmth, a wistfulness, and a whimsy to Luca which feels like it draws inspiration from any Hayao Miyazaki film. And, from the 30 minutes of footage that I saw in an early press day for Luca, a deep understanding of human relationships and the delicate moments that define them.

It's a comparison that I don't make lightly, but it's one that's not off the mark, considering Luca director Enrico Casarosa's lifelong love for the works of the anime titan, going so far as to make the Pixar animators on his team watch Miyazaki films and TV shows for reference.

"I'm such a [fan] of Miyazaki," Casarosa told me in an interview over Zoom during an early press day for Luca ahead of the Pixar film's Disney+ release. "He's a hero, you know, and I've had a chance to meet him. He's looming large in my DNA."

Let me first emphasize that it's clear that Casarosa really, really loves Hayao Miyazaki. Many a filmmaker will praise the animation legend's well-worn classics like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, but Casarosa casually references deep cuts from before Miyazaki's time at Studio Ghibli, back when he cut his teeth in TV.

"Future Boy Conan — I grew up with that TV series when it was on in the '80s," Casarosa told me, as we nerded out over Miyazaki and Ghibli together. Future Boy Conan is a 1978 Nippon Animation sci-fi anime directed by Miyazaki, based on Alexander Key's 1970 novel The Incredible Tide.

"You know for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, which is another thing series he worked on, he traveled to Genoa," Casarosa added later on, surprising even me, who had barely heard of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother mentioned outside of a brief paragraph in a Miyazaki memoir. To be honest, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother is more often considered an Isao Takahata project, as Miyazaki only worked on layout for the 1976 anime series, but Casarosa had a reason for mentioning it. Genoa is his hometown, the riverside city to which he would return every summer and spend a sun-dappled season frolicking through the waves with his childhood friend Alberto, upon whom Luca's Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) is based.

Stylistically, Luca might be inspired by Miyazaki, but narratively, it's all Casarosa. The new Pixar movie follows a young sea monster named Luca (Jacob Tremblay) as he befriends a fellow sea monster, Alberto, who persuades Luca to explore the human world with him. The two of them become obsessed with buying a Vespa, and enter a contest with a hard-nosed but friendly human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman). Sea monsters aside, the friendship between Luca and Alberto is heavily inspired by Casarosa's friendship with his Alberto, a free-spirited soul who "was following a passion every week," and helped bring the shy and timid Casarosa out of his shell.

I spoke to Casarosa about bringing such a personal story into a major Pixar film, as well as whether Luca reflects the Miyazaki concept of "akogare no Paris," or "Paris of our dreams." Read part of our conversation below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Obviously, Luca is inspired by a very personal story of your own childhood, Enrico. Did you have any reservations about turning such a personal story into a major Pixar film?

Sometimes you do, but I think it's so true in storytelling: if there's something that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable, that's where the juicy part is. So I think being willing to be vulnerable is a big part of digging deep and finding something worth sharing. So I think I didn't think too much about that. Not for long, because again, I think you just try and look for the interesting things in your life, and the difficulties in your life. And my friendship with my friend, yeah we definitely spent a few years [together], so this is a kind of an encapsulation of it all.

But I think it really felt like it gave me something to say, which is great. In similar ways, my dad and my grandfather not getting along was what La Luna was about. It was a difficult thing to do, to show that to my dad when I went back to Italy. But I think it was also a sweet moment. My dad at the time kind of cried and he told me he didn't realize that much I felt his fights with my grandfather. And so it was cathartic in many ways. So again, you go a little bit to where the emotions are, to kind of be willing to be vulnerable.

Pixar films as of late, have been tackling some really ambitious, really high concept stuff but the themes of Luca are relatively simple — the outsider narrative and deep friendships. So would you say that that simplicity of the style of the themes of Luca is the appeal? And what do you think that Luca does with those themes that adds something that hasn't been done by other films about this subject?

Yeah, I feel for me, it was really bringing a playfulness [to the movie]. In talking about a friendship, you're right, there's a lot of, "What do we want to say about friendship?" so it was really about finding the specificity in this friendship. And what really we're saying about it — I don't want to spoil too much of the movie — but of course, a lot of it is at the end. The sense of our friendship is in the ending. But that was the key thing, that in the beginning, we were still looking for the theme of it... Like, what are these friendships? First of all "opposites attract" is a big part of it, but [it's also] "how do we help each other by growing up," and "these friendships end up being really truly part of you." Like you always take a piece as you change, and you grow up, and find your own identity.

So for me, it was really about digging deep with that. And what we wanted to say about that was, the important part in finding emotion, finding how you bring that that roller coaster ride to an audience so that it's an interesting journey. Finding the fullness of that, but also trying something different.

We were always very aware of, "how much of a roller coaster ride do we want to do?" I have always been interested in lyricism and a little bit [of a] slower pace, so it was also trying to do something a little different with an introvert at the heart. Which was not easy — introverts are not immediately easy to filmmaking. I feel like [in] a novel, it's slightly easier to get inside the brain of the characters. Those were the things I also was interesting in trying to find: Can we have some different, a little bit more lyrical? That was the challenge. And then it came together — let's take everybody to Italy and [have] these wonderful memories, [let's] make this a true love letter to the place, which has been such a fun part of really finding specificity of the place and the characters. Giulia is such a unique, unusual character [that] I'm so happy we've found. So, yeah, hopefully those are the things that bring it to that next level.

You've spoken about the influence of Fellini and other Italian neorealist filmmakers on Luca, but there's been a lot of mention from the animators of the influence of Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. And I have to say, watching the footage from Luca, I was reminded of this concept of Miyazaki films called "akogare no Paris" (Paris of our dreams), especially in this dreamy, nostalgic vision of Italy. Would you say there's a thematic inspiration from Miyazaki films on Luca as well?

Yeah, there's a couple of things. I'm such a [fan] of Miyazaki. He's a hero, you know, and I've had a chance to meet him. He's looming large in my DNA. [One of] the things that I really think a lot about is first, Future Boy Conan — I grew up with that the TV series when it was on in the '80s. It took me a little while to realize that this was something special. When I was a kid I didn't know yet, we watched all sorts of Japanese cartoons in Italy and Europe, especially in the '80s. Almost everything was robots and Candy Candy [a girls-targeted anime which ran from 1976-1979] and all sorts of genres, but this one always connected to me.

Later as I studied animation, I watched more movies, and saw Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, of course all these wonderful movies, and I realized what was special about that. There were only two kids in that TV series, which was also very interesting. So something that we showed animators [working on Pixar's Luca] was just how playful the animation was, how it supported this childhood point of view. And when I think about the things that I love, that I really feel kinship with in those movies, is that eye for detail and that eye for nature. And that's why I am attracted to characters like Luca, or like Conan and Jimsy [from Future Boy Conan], who are experiencing things for the first time. They're almost like aliens. That enabled me to really lovingly detail a blade of grass in the wind, which is something that, of course, Miyazaki is a master [at].

And the wonderful thing that enabled me to use the same gaze toward Portorosso, toward the Italian details that I grew up with. And I thought, "Okay well there's something I can give you. I don't need to give you a completely idealized version, because I have a memory of it." So I want it to go past that, I wanted to give you specificity there and staying away from stereotypes. Those are given by the sounds that I remember in the summer, the characters in town. The whole town becomes its own character. And what we're hearing from Italy, luckily people are recognizing them, and so I'm really happy with it because that is something we've worked hard to find an authenticity there.

And don't get me wrong, there's a lot of love that Miyazaki puts in his vision of Europe. In fact, you know for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother [a 1976 Nippon Animation anime directed by longtime Miyazaki partner Isao Takahata, on which Miyazaki did layout], which is another thing series he worked on, he traveled to Genoa. So when I was a big fan, I was nerding out about their depiction of Genoa, which is my home city. But I feel like, hopefully, there was something I could give to that place, because I experienced those summers and was there for it.

But there's something uncanny about the way Miyazaki could put himself into a kid's point of view. That's something that I certainly wanted to do this movie. I was saying this to everybody: When I jump into the sea, even nowadays in California, I become a kid, I want to play in the waves. So I realized that, that is a connection to childhood: the sea, the water. So that was a big part that I wanted to hopefully share with the world.


Luca debuts exclusively on Disney+ on June 18, 2021.