Another Take: Luca

Fast-paced and full of color and light, "Luca" takes a more probing look at pubescent friendships than we expect from a piece of animated entertainment.

I don’t know how it is for girls, but for boys the friendships you have around age 12 tend to be the most important of your life. Boys at that age are this weird mix of bravado, shame, curiosity and mortification. Your body is doing all sorts of weird stuff and that’s nothing compared to what’s going on inside your head.

Movies have done a decent, though sporadic job at examining this time, with “Stand By Me” immediately coming to mind. I can’t recall a whole lot of animated movies to tackle pubescent boys, though “Luca” comes along to try to rectify that.

It’s a bright, colorful, energetic picture that is closer to “Up” in the Disney/Pixar oeuvre than some of their more fantastical fare. I’d put it about in the middle of the pack quality-wise, along the lines of “Wreck It Ralph,” a solidly entertaining flick that may not linger all that long in the memory.

Set in a gorgeous Italian coastal fishing town in what could be anywhere from the 1940s to 1980s, “Luca” stars Jacob Tremblay as a merman who lives under the water, tending to a flock of fish like sheep. It’s a very safe but rather dull existence, and his parents (voices of Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) barely pay attention to Luca -- other than warning him never to wander to the surface, where humans regard their kind as dangerous sea monsters to be harpooned.

So of course he does just that, and bumps into Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s just as rebellious and cocky as Luca is fearful and shy. Alberto likes to collect (read: steal) cool items from the humanfolk and lives more or less on his own in an island tower, his dad being away on some vague job or mission.

This results in a shocking discovery for Luca: their kind are shapeshifters, morphing into human form once they emerge from the water. After shock training in how to walk and pass as a normal kid, he and Alberto soon form an instant but enduring bond. Tall and strapping, Alberto takes the lead and Luca follows.

They fall in love with the idea of buying a Vespa scooter a la “Roman Holiday” and traveling all around the world (where, to them, everything is adjacent to the sea). Circumstances arise that compel them to run off to the nearby human town and try to fit in.

They soon partner up with Giulia (Emma Berman), an independent-minded girl their own age, with the idea to join the big local triathlon -- swimming, biking and eating pasta -- as a team and win enough money for a shiny new Vespa. (Or, at least, a dilapidated old one.)

The heavy is Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), the local bully who has won the race five times in a row and is determined to go for another, age limits be damned.

Of course, Luca and Alberto must be constantly fearful of having any water splashed on them, lest they revert to their sea monster form. This can happen in little pieces, so an arm or leg that suddenly turns blue and scaly can be hidden, but not when the rain comes down and drenches all.

It’s a clever visual cue to shifting bodies and identities, and how youngsters going through the change can feel like an alien in their own flesh.

The story is based on the childhood experiences of director Enrico Casarosa, who made the similarly Italian-themed “La Luna” a decade ago, and makes his feature directorial debut here with a screenplay from Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones.

The animation is full of little details that catchy your eye, like the slight sun damage on everyone’s skin from the comforting but searing Mediterranean sea. I liked the contrast between the three kids’ hair, with Luca’s modest dark waves, Alberto’s proud blondish pompadour and Giulia’s fire-red mass of curls.

The movie is an exploration of childhood friendships, and shows more complexity and depth than you’d expect in an animated movie. Luca as the withdrawn kid who must find his inner strength is a pretty familiar theme, but we also get into Alberto’s head as the boy who long ago got tagged as “the bad kid,” and has let that define his identity.

I do wish the movie could have given a little more space to Giulia, who sort of just wanders between the boys doing standard-issue plucky-girl things.

But “Luca” still has some interesting things to say about the journey from child to adult, and has splashes of fun getting there.