Apple TV+’s newest film is the streamer’s big flagship collaboration with Skydance Animation under the new leadership of disgraced former Pixar chief John Lasseter.
Can the film’s relative charms tip the scales in favor of a new endeavor, instead of back toward the hasty assembly of a company around a man who never really answered for his allegations? Unfortunately, Luck, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, would have had to have a lot more going for it to get people talking about the movie on pure merit.
In the movie, Sam Greenfield (voice of Eva Noblezada) has just aged out of her foster home. She gets a job at a supermarket run by a nice but flustered man (Lil Rel Howery), a new apartment to herself for the first time, and responsibilities she doesn’t quite feel up to handling.
Making things worse, she’s got terrible luck, as her youngest friend at the orphanage, Hazel (Adelynn Spoon), never tires of telling her. But that all changes one day when a cat sits next to Sam as she’s eating dinner. She explains her woes, and that she really hopes Hazel will find a family before she ages out like she did. As the cat gets up to leave, he leaves behind a penny … or anyway, it looks like a penny, except instead of Abe Lincoln, it’s got a four-leaf clover on it.
The next day as Sam carries around the coin, she has perfect luck in everything she does … until she drops it in the toilet. She had planned to give the coin to Hazel so she’d have good luck and get adopted, but that plan is gone now. When she tells the cat this, he shouts back at her, furious, in the voice of Simon Pegg.
Bob the cat flees, and Sam gives chase, catching up in time to see him enter another dimension — a land of pure luck, run by leprechauns. Sam needs Bob to get her a new lucky penny from the leprechauns without them knowing he stole it. This will take them all through the labyrinthine land of luck as Sam and Bob learn a couple of important life lessons.
Mostly what Luck represents is a missed opportunity, and I think I know why. The MO of a lot of Pixar Animation Studios’ work is to create full and lived-in worlds of make-believe. Places like the mind of a child or under a kid’s bed become enormous factories and ecosystems unto themselves, right out of the best of Chuck Jones and his stable of weird, frequently untenable geniuses at Looney Tunes.
The simplest version of this idea can be found in the Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog cartoons, in which the everyday animal nature of two beasts becomes a job from which they punch in and out every morning and evening. Pixar gave life and agency and a big humdrum work environment to things that we take for granted, to help kids understand and have fun with their world.
Skydance is no Pixar
The trouble is, once you’ve shown us the inside of the toy chest, the brain, heaven, your car … well, you run out of places to make special, and you run out of ways to do it.
Luck’s concept — all the world’s luck comes from an underground city of whimsy staffed by pigs and unicorns — is pretty feeble when you stack it next to something like Inside Out or Coco. And it seems especially so when you consider this was supposed to be Pixar head honcho (and Toy Story director) John Lasseter’s “second act,” after he left the company that made Steve Jobs a billionaire under a cloud.
It may not be fair to choreographer-turned-director Peggy Holmes to view Luck through the lens of the movie’s uncomfortable production. But Skydance seems anxious to put forward Lasseter as the face of this new chapter in its history. In fact, they teed up a nice, shiny puff piece in The Hollywood Reporter that nimbly and desperately glosses over Lasseter’s history of sexually abusive behavior.
This seems a little fishy
I find it more than a little telling that Skydance Animation’s first big film centers on young women undergoing a really difficult time in their lives and seeking guidance from older hands. (Emma Thompson, originally slated to play the part of the dragon, backed out upon learning of Lasseter’s involvement in Luck. The part went to famous feminist Jane Fonda, unfortunately laundering Lasseter’s comeback with her credibility.) The company tries to make it sound like that’s what happened with Holmes and Lasseter in that Hollywood Reporter story.
First of all, by placing us in the mindset of an orphan who needs love and a better life, Skydance is banking on us feeling sympathy for this character immediately. The filmmakers are gambling on us forgetting anything about our real world in favor of feeling the cruelty of this movie’s imaginary one, which is mostly of the “workplace cactus accidents” and “toast on the ceiling” variety.
Holmes had been a kind of third-string director at Disney, helming The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning (a direct-to-video Little Mermaid sequel) and two Tinker Bell movies that got very limited releases but were well-liked.
With Luck, she does perfectly well by an ordinary, very intermittently charming script by Kiel Murray, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.
A thin premise, sub-Pixar animation and an unimaginative score
The movie’s premise is beyond thin: It’s basically Pixar’s Soul with a different, less-virulent racist bent. (There’s less harm, I can’t help but feel, in imagining a world run by stereotypical Irish caricatures than in whatever Pixar thought it was doing with Soul.)
Luck’s music is unimaginative. And the animation isn’t quite up to Pixar snuff. But this is a first feature, so growing pains are to be expected.
Still, it is peculiar that, with this many years under the respective producers’ and directors’ and animators’ belts (to say nothing of the healthy Skydance budget), this film should feel so obviously like the work of people working together for the first time. Indeed if you’d told me that Luck came from an upstart company with newcomers in every production role, I’d have believed you.
Good luck getting the adults to like it (especially with Whoopi Goldberg on board)
There are no jokes you haven’t heard, no sights or stylistic flourishes you haven’t seen, Lasseter even hired his old friend John Ratzenberger (a voice in every Pixar movie since Toy Story) to come and do the voice of a plant-based bartender. All in all, I can really only see Luck appealing to the very young, rather than the larger audience Pixar tries more often to court.
The performances by pros are all good, except for one: The sight of a leprechaun voiced by a catatonic 66-year-old Whoopi Goldberg is just one of those things that makes you sorry you ever became a film critic. The newcomers’ performances all seem a little stilted.
Every frame is rich in detail but the motion is a little slow, and the animated people suffer from the same problems as most of Pixar’s did. They seem detailed in a few ways and off-puttingly vague in others.
Skydance Animation could start producing great work in a few years’ time. But with Lasseter at the helm, the company is still going to have a big problem that overshadows everybody else’s achievements.
The studio has every right to keep Lasseter around and not gesture toward a public atonement. But it should know that everyone who talks about Skydance’s work also has every right to make him the headline when they do.
Watch Luck on Apple TV+
Luck premieres August 5 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.