Nobody was particularly anticipating the comeback vehicle for disgraced Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Luck" is that any storytelling magic he once had is now all but absent. Alongside the other founders of the beloved animated studio, he once had a lunch meeting where they mapped out film ideas on a napkin which would later become several of their most beloved masterpieces. Decades later, he is alleged to have repeatedly fallen asleep in script meetings at Skydance Animation (the fledgling studio he is now head of), completely missing crucial plot holes throughout the development of his studio's debut feature. The last time Lasseter helped launch a new animation studio, he gave the world "Toy Story," a close-to-perfect film that has stood the test of time. This time, he's launching a new studio with a feature as sloppily conceived as you'd expect from his work ethic, that'll likely be lost to the streaming algorithm by next week.
This is particularly disappointing because, on the face of it, the film (directed by veteran animator Peggy Holmes) has a concept with the potential of vintage Pixar, with the promise of a fantastical world that has a direct effect on our recognizably everyday lives; a narrative recipe for success in the likes of "Monsters Inc" and "Inside Out." In "Luck" we're introduced to Sam Greenfield (Eva Noblezada), an 18-year-old who believes bad luck follows her wherever she goes. After moving out from the foster home where she's spent her entire life, Sam's lifelong misfortune continues, as she clumsily stumbles into a new home and a new job, where every single mundane task goes horribly wrong.
It is, surprisingly, these early moments before we jet off to the fantastical Land of Luck that are likely to be most engaging to younger audiences, with simple slapstick charm as we see Sam struggle with every single daily task that comes her way. It's also the section that promises a deeper emotional undercurrent for the story that it eventually delivers, suggesting that the film will take more time exploring Sam's childhood trauma as a lifelong foster kid who was never adopted. Rather disappointingly, this aspect of her character is never explored with the depth it deserves, existing only as another plot point to highlight her general lack of luck.
Things take a turn for the fantastical when black cat Bob (a dreadful Simon Pegg) shows up, accidentally dropping a lucky penny that gives Sam all the luck she's been missing out on. But she loses it after a day, and when she bumps into him again, chases him into a portal that takes them both all the way to the Land of Luck, where she must blend in with all the locals to get back her penny and escape back to the human world. Much like how the aforementioned "Monsters Inc." and "Inside Out" guide us through elaborately constructed workplaces that correspond to our reality, this universe showcases how the good luck that is then transferred to the human world is made — for example, the pennies that will give you good luck all day long if you pick them up off the floor.
But whereas those two films lead us through these workspaces with an eye on visual gags, "Luck" doesn't have the same comic invention. This is a fantastical universe populated almost entirely by corporate spaces, which aren't brought to life with the same wit; we're told how each department in this land creates luck all over the world, but rarely do we see this dramatized in an interesting way. It's highly unusual for a film aimed at children to fixate entirely on the business mechanics of this universe, and it does prove every bit as boring as this sounds. Even with a sidekick cat, a dragon, and a plethora of leprechauns, young audiences will want to return to the simple slapstick thrills back on Earth rather than spend more time here.
The few moments of visual invention within this universe feel lifted from other animated efforts. Take the way the characters here travel from one destination to another, a transport system that's effectively an overblown Rube Goldberg machine. During one of the several set pieces built around this, I realized that this was a near beat-for-beat retread of a similar set piece in the now forgotten animation "Robots" — as the recent Hollywood Reporter piece on Lasseter's time at Skydance pointed out, the studio has hired several former employees of Blue Sky Animation, the studio which gave us that 2005 effort. There are very few creatives involved in this project who aren't coasting by on former glories, as minor as those earlier glories might have been.
As the narrative progresses, the mechanics of the Land of Luck – namely how luck is created, and how this impacts the human world – become increasingly convoluted. The masterstroke of those aforementioned Pixar efforts was that they inducted us into their worlds through humor, but the screenplay by Kiel Murray, Jonathan Aibel, and Glenn Berger is oddly preoccupied with the lore of this universe, repeatedly pausing the action to explain how everything works. It doesn't take long to understand why Lasseter was reportedly falling asleep after having the screenplay read to him. This only gets worse when we start to learn how the Land of Luck intersects with the land of Bad Luck underneath and becomes borderline incomprehensible once we're introduced to a German unicorn (Flula Borg) who is in charge of the "randomizer" that equally distributes good and bad luck throughout the universe. The film is a victim of the screenwriters overthinking an easy-to-digest fantastical concept, something that would likely be easier to forgive if any of the other corners of this world were exciting to spend time in.
Similar to "Inside Out," which had the tricky task of outlining to its young audience why experiencing sadness is a good thing, "Luck" strives to outline that bad luck is a necessary part of life. It's no surprise that the film stumbles in this regard; Sam is a likable protagonist due to her selflessness, but the confusing world-building that surrounds her will likely make this moral harder for the young target audience to digest. That is if they manage to get to that part and haven't checked out after the story makes repeated visits to the Land of Luck's various Research & Development Labs, which the filmmakers have incorrectly assumed children will want to spend time in. This does get to the heart of the film's problem though; the corporate aspects of the story are given priority over the emotions that underpin it, meaning it doesn't have the moving pay-off that was clearly intended.
"Luck" is a cloying and narratively incoherent animation that will bore children and adults alike. If Skydance thought this would make them one of Hollywood's leading animation studios right out of the gate, then they're about to experience even worse luck than their film's protagonist.
"Luck" debuts on AppleTV+ on Friday, August 5.