The big story with the new Skydance outing Luck isn’t that it’s the inaugural animated feature from a 15-year-old production company, but that it’s the first from John Lasseter since his exit from Pixar (the company he founded) back in 2018. While I usually loathe the idea of mentioning a creative’s personal life in a review since it rarely has anything to do with the movie itself, I bring it up here because which side you stand on regarding the issue will, probably, greatly determine whether or not you will want to like this movie going into it.
In the genre of animation where Disney’s dominance all but gave way to Pixar’s by the end of the ‘90s, we’re finally seeing inarguable proof how the mighty has fallen. If it’s any indication by the misguided, if not surprisingly existential, Toy Story-free Lightyear from earlier this summer, the Emeryville animation giant has seemed to have lost its pluck, no longer in the business of pushing the bounds of their medium and more interested in mining for social proof to plop out safe cinematic endeavors, albeit with their age-old technological expertise and increasingly disingenuous arcs.
Skydance’s Luck is, easily, less attractive than any Pixar movie that’s ever been made – on the surface at least. The texturing is a bit sterile, the mouths move awkwardly at times, and the characters themselves look like they’re made by animation students. However, the studio’s debut is better than anything Pixar has churned out since 2017’s Coco simply because it feels like the films Pixar used to be known for.
With Lasseter now serving as Head of Animation at Skydance, there’s a magic underlying all of Luck, and a playfulness that recent Pixar movies could only ever fake while championing austere themes and emotional heft. And there’s one thing that sets this film apart the most from recent animation: it’s actually made with kids in mind.
For Sam (Eva Noblezada), bad luck isn’t just a streak, but a lifestyle. It goes beyond the incessant failures during her morning routine and string of foibles at work; Sam’s spent all her life as an orphan. She recently turned 18 and was forced to go out and live on her own. Her best friend, Hazel, is significantly younger and still has hopes of finding a family that will adopt her.
After a chance encounter with a mysterious black cat, Sam discovers a strange coin on the ground that grants her supernatural levels of fortune. The selfless person she is, she decides to give the coin to Hazel in hopes that it will bring her some loving parents. However, before she’s able to do so, she drops the coin down the toilet. Sam soon discovers that the black cat can talk (voiced by Simon Pegg) and follows him into the hidden Land of Luck, where he and other creatures like leprechauns and dragons curate good luck for those on Earth.
The worldbuilding in the Land of Luck is along the lines of Wreck-It Ralph, Coco (Lasseter’s final Pixar film), and Monsters Inc., where director Peggy Holmes utilizes fun visual storytelling to make this universe feel real and coveted. Even prior to Sam traveling to this new dimension, the characters move throughout their scenes with musical fluidity, not dissimilar to the brilliant fight sequences in The Incredibles or the comedic timing of Wall-E, where movement is well-choreographed to elicit excitement or laughter, or simply to keep us engaged. Likewise, fresh and creative ideas are given to Sam’s unlucky affliction to further elevate the experience and provide truly hilarious follies.
As animation is moving away from live-action camerawork, most recent efforts have tried to breach the plausibility of physics in order to do something big or absurd. In Luck, however, the cinematography actually strikes a balance, utilizing both live-action conventions and the unique capabilities of its animated medium. While there’s an intrinsic energy to each scene, Holmes (a 40-year veteran of the craft) also knows when to slow things down so we can spend time living in this setting.
Luck takes a would-be premise of a sitcom episode and extends it into a full-length film while always keeping the characters at the forefront and the dialogue fresh. Lasseter’s absence from Disney / Pixar fare these past years has been obvious, but he appears to have transposed his Midas touch seamlessly to his new studio. Unlike with most of its animated contemporaries, we’re not being preached to in Luck, yet there’s an astute poignancy at play that’s approachable for both kids and adults in a way that’s become increasingly rare in animation as of late. I can’t wait to see more.