During the 2000s heyday of Pixar Animation Studios, the studio’s releases seemed absolutely guaranteed to get rapturous reviews and muscular box office. Pixar’s long roster of successes, from the Toy Story movies to Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and more, prompted plenty of profiles examining the company’s creative process, and its technique of “plussing” during story development, or offering positive suggestions and improvements for any elements that weren’t working, rather than negative critiques. It’s not unlike the ”yes and” technique seen in improv: A finished product built through plussing might not much resemble the original idea, but it will be built out from that idea, without the creative team getting distracted by second-guessing elements and tearing down their own work.
Luck, the inaugural feature film from Skydance Animation — and the first film produced by former Disney/Pixar animation head John Lasseter since the company ousted him over sexual harassment complaints — feels like plussing run amok. It’s a movie where uninspired ideas become the building blocks for more uninspired ideas, until the filmmakers have constructed an elaborate shrine to their own whimsical lore. This is a movie that whisks its perpetually unlucky heroine, Sam (Eva Noblezada), into a magical land of luck, a place crowded with leprechauns and various animals considered lucky across different cultures. But it doesn’t stop there; those animals are also deeply invested in the creation of magic luck dust. And also the preservation of magic luck rocks. And they’re powered by magic lucky pennies. Also, there’s a dragon voiced by Jane Fonda.
Despite all this magical bric-a-brac, Luck isn’t an especially magical experience. It feels more like a whiteboard full of brainstorms nobody had the heart to erase. It’s not generally that notable for a non-Pixar, non-Disney animation studio to make a big-budget misfire; in recent years, plenty of talented Disney staffers have defected to streaming services and produced feature-length animated films that don’t measure up to the likes of Pixar’s Turning Red, Disney’s Encanto, or the varied textures of non-American animation. But Luck’s Pixar-related pedigree stands out. Lasseter looms large over the project, and Skydance Animation is now backed by Apple, whose former CEO, Steve Jobs, once served as chairman of Pixar.
Like so many other disgraced entertainers, Lasseter couldn’t stay away from the business for long. He joined Skydance in 2019, while the studio was already working on Luck. His role on this film was likely akin to the later-2000s non-Pixar Disney movies he reworked after becoming chief creative officer of all Disney animation. Lasseter hired credited director Peggy Holmes (who worked on a series of direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell movies for Disney in the 2010s) and screenwriter Kiel Murray (who worked on the Cars movies with Lasseter) to reconfigure Luck midstream — the same kind of retuning that often happened on past Disney and Pixar movies, successfully and not.
That’s a lot of backstory for just one family-friendly cartoon, though the behind-the-scenes process mirrors Luck’s clogged, overelaborate plotting. Sam is a longtime resident of a home for orphan girls. Her self-diagnosed bad luck has kept her from getting adopted into a “forever family” — a term the movie uses over and over, lest its themes and concerns remain unclear. Now living on her own and determined to help her young friend Hazel (Adelynn Spoon) secure her own adoption, Sam happens upon a lucky penny dropped by a mysterious black cat named Bob (voiced by Simon Pegg). When she loses the coin, she follows Bob into the land of luck, hoping to retrieve it so she can bestow its magical properties upon Hazel.
This is where the business with the lucky cats, lucky pigs, and lucky rabbits mixes with the magical luck stones and luck dust, alongside various bad-luck equivalents on a different level of the land. There’s a randomizing machine that distributes good luck and bad luck to the human world, ensuring that neither type of luck overtakes the other. It’s a lot to keep straight. Where Inside Out threatened to over-literalize the workings of the human mind and Soul struggled to make its abstract metaphysical concepts more concrete, Luck is something far worse: a cartoon with mundane ideas about the flukiness of fate, expressed in convoluted and tedious ways. It’s like a “plussed” corporate impression of a Terry Gilliam movie.
It isn’t much fun as a sensory experience, either. There are flashes of animated wit, like a fun early scene where Sam chases a silent (and luck-blessed) Bob through the city streets, hot on his tail as he uses his good luck to continually zip just out of reach. But this sequence also emphasizes how much of the movie’s idea of “luck” has to do with physical dexterity; Sam doesn’t seem chronically unlucky so much as she’s something of a rom-com-style klutz. She’s all generic pluck, while Bob is all Scottish-accented reluctance to help or even engage. (Both the voice and the attitude unfortunately recall Shrek.) The supposedly emotional bond between the two of them is referred to more than it’s developed — and it’s still better than some of the dialogue between human characters, who can look and sound downright robotic. As high-end American animation, this is polished but unremarkable stuff.
In short, nothing about Luck is compelling enough to distract animation fans from its discomfiting status as Lasseter’s comeback project. Through this lens, the movie only looks stranger. Pixar movies like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Monsters, Inc. all champion the high-achieving exceptionalism that matches their corporate rep, so at first, even acknowledging both the existence and the randomness of luck seems like a different way of looking at the world, even an act of contrition from Lasseter. But maybe this story appealed to him because it allowed him to think of his active mistakes as simply bad breaks — as character-building obstacles, which is ultimately how the movie characterizes bad luck. Either way, it’s hard for in-the-know animation fans to ignore his presence behind the scenes.
Initially, Luck comes across as a watered-down version of Inside Out — a fanciful exploration of how life’s setbacks shape and even guide us, with generic “bad luck” swapped in for the vivid, personified Sadness of the Pixar film. But the Skydance version of that theme winds up looking more like Pixar’s movies about exceptional characters doing exceptional things. Luck makes the process of surviving bad luck suspiciously dependent on a character having sufficient pluck and grit. It isn’t interested in grappling with genuine unfairness, the way Inside Out admits there are authentic real-world reasons for sadness, and that it’s OK to experience it. And Luck politely passes on the chance to grapple with the causes of those unfairness, or the ways circumstances of class or race can make a streak of seemingly fluky “bad luck” far more damaging for some groups than for others.
The idea of pluck and resolve fixing any problem is par for the course in family movies (and fables since the dawn of time), and they fuel a pretty familiar plot in Luck, which is attempting to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. That’s also part of what makes it such an insistent, off-putting experience. Regardless of what Lasseter was thinking about in terms of shaping this misbegotten story, the film’s use of Sam and Hazel’s orphan status to provoke sympathy starts to feel pretty cheap and overplayed well before the movie gilds the lily by having characters say things like “It’s a happy cry” during the emotional climax. Lasseter’s time away doesn’t seem to have inspired much reflection on his end, or honed his once-unbeatable sense for a unique and personal story. Luck, though, unwittingly makes the case for his involvement as an unambiguous minus.
Luck is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.