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Dive Into 'Luca' And 'Undine,' 2 Under-The-Sea Films To Treasure

Two sea creatures go undercover as boys in a small Italian Riviera town in the charming Pixar film <em>Luca</em>.
Two sea creatures go undercover as boys in a small Italian Riviera town in the charming Pixar film Luca.

By curious coincidence, two of the lovelier movies I've seen so far this summer — the family-friendly animated fable Luca and the German art-house fairy tale Undine — tell stories about mythic sea creatures making contact with the human world. That's hardly a new concept, as we've seen in films as different as The Shape of Water, Aquamanand countless versions of The Little Mermaid. But as Luca and Undine demonstrate, there are still fresh stories to be dredged up from these watery depths.

Arriving on Disney+ several months after the Oscar-winning afterlife comedy Soul, Luca is a lighter, mellower brand of Pixar confection. It also happens to be a better, more smartly realized movie. It takes place in and around a small Italian Riviera town whose residents live in fear of the sea monsters rumored to dwell in the surrounding waters.

One of these fantastical creatures is Luca, a sweet young boy with blue fins, green scales and a long tail, who lives in an underwater grotto with his overprotective parents. (He's voiced by Jacob Tremblay, the lead in a strong cast that also includes Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan.)

Like the Little Mermaid herself, Luca becomes fascinated by the world above the ocean's surface. One day, he ventures ashore and finds that, after drying himself off, he takes on human form. But he has to be careful never to get wet or he'll be exposed as a sea creature — a supernatural conceit that sets up a lot of the gags in this literal fish-out-of-water farce.

Luca's guide to the human world is another boy/undercover sea creature named Alberto. In one scene, Alberto shows Luca his home in a stone tower and teaches him about gravity and other forces he'll have to face on the surface. Eventually Luca and Alberto make their way into town, which is gorgeously designed in a way we've come to expect from Pixar: The director Enrico Casarosa, working from a script by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, composes an exquisite visual love letter to Italy's cobblestoned streets and scenic piazzas.

Luca and Alberto befriend an outgoing young girl named Giulia and enter a local triathlon where one of the events is — what else? — a pasta-eating contest. But in embracing their new life on dry land, they also run the risk of being exposed and even harmed by the townsfolk, with their superstitious fear of sea monsters.

When the trailer for Luca was released weeks ago, its images of two boys running around a lush Italian paradise led more than a few to wonder, half-jokingly, if Pixar had made its own version of the gay love story Call Me by Your Name. While there's no romance in Luca, the subtext is hard to miss: After all, Luca and Alberto are struggling to conceal their true identities in a society that shuns what it doesn't understand. Theirs is a charming story about friendship, adventure and learning to live without fear.

The title character in the melancholy drama Undine is also a water sprite who takes on human form, though any similarities between the two movies pretty much end there. An Undine, or Ondine is a famous nymph from European mythology, though the German writer-director Christian Petzold puts his own spin on the legend.

This Undine, played by Paula Beer, lives in present-day Berlin and works as a city historian. You wouldn't guess that there's anything supernatural about her, or that she's bound by a single rule: If a human lover betrays her, she must take his life. We see her preparing to do just that early on, when her latest boyfriend, Johannes, tells her he's leaving her for another woman.

Petzold takes a somber, realistic approach to this outlandish premise; there are no obvious visual effects, and Undine's mythological origins are never spelled out. But the story unfolds with such sly matter-of-factness that I soon found myself immersed in it. Before she has time to deal with Johannes, Undine is swept off her feet by another man, Christoph, and the two plunge headlong into a love affair that consumes them both — and, like most of Undine's love affairs, is not fated to end happily.

Christoph is played by Franz Rogowski, who appeared together with Beer in Petzold's previous film, Transit. The actors are captivating to watch, and their reunion here adds to the movie's faintly otherworldly feel. Petzold likes to use genre to illuminate different chapters of German history, and Undine is no exception. His filmmaking is so elegant and concise that you may not realize he's slipping in a lesson on the history of Berlin itself — a history of war, devastation and reconstruction to which Undine has long borne witness. She's a truly timeless heroine in a movie that I've seen multiple times now and which becomes more mysterious — and magical — with each revisit.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.