Hugely innovative on both a technological and narrative level, Pixar helped advance the medium of animation, and destroy once and for all the notion that mainstream animated films couldn’t be complex and ambitious without alienating or excluding their (usual) core family demographic. John Lasseter, as the director of toy story and Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, was at the forefront of this sea-change.
It’s especially perplexing, then, that lucky, the shockingly dismal debut feature from the new, Lasseter-run Skydance Animation, arrives with such a thud. The movie’s slipshod reasoning and grating rhythms strongly suggest that Lasseter’s ignominious professional defenestration (he was driven from his perch in 2017-18 amidst allegations of sexual misconduct) has impacted his storytelling judgment, the expertise and skill level of people who wish to work with him , or both.
Aging out of the group house she’s long called home, 18-year-old orphan Sam (Eva Noblezada) gets her first apartment and a job. Gifted a magic penny which for several hours reverses her seemingly perpetual haplessness, Sam makes plans to give it to a young friend and fellow orphan Hazel in advance of the latter’s meeting with a potential adoptive family—only to lose the coin at the last minute.
When Sam again crosses paths with the Scottish black cat, Bob (Simon Pegg), who she believes to be a harbinger of luck, he flees. Sam gives her chase, and slips back to his home, an alternate dimension called the “Land of Luck” where fortune both good and bad is manufactured, and then funneled to Earth. The happy, positive side is populated with leprechauns and bunnies—though overseen for some reason by a 40-foot dragon named Babe (Jane Fonda). There’s a negative side, too, as well as an “In Between” space, appropriately sandwiched in the midst of these two lands.
Sam and Bob, with the assistance of the latter’s leprechaun friend Gerry (Colin O’Donoghue), try to evade Captain (Whoopi Goldberg), the Land of Luck’s stern security head, and lay hands on a lucky penny they can then utilize to help them both.
to say that lucky struggles with nonverbal storytelling is a massive understatement. The screenplay, by Kiel Murray (from story co-credited alongside Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel) is somewhat paradoxically lazy and incredibly overwritten. Many details seem odd (leprechauns just exist to polish pennies), perhaps the result of a push-and-pull development, and the overall script is full of a number of holes that never get spackled up. One of the most notable examples of this is a store manager, Marv (Lil Rel Howery), who greets Sam on her first day of work by saying, apropos of nothing, “You may be the best decision I ever made!”
For long-principled opponents of the cars and spin off plans franchises, in which there are many vexing questions about those worlds, as well as an entire class of vehicles which exist in servitude, lucky also likely presents one major gear-grinding oddity: what is the genesis of this universe, and why do its inhabitants all exist to provide fortune to humans which very few of them ever meet? lucky simply shrugs at any sincere interaction with its setting.
Most wearyingly, though, lucky is weighed down by a story that is incredibly task-oriented. In the absence of any genuinely well-crafted world-building, with some sense of wonderment and whimsy that might capture and hold the imagination of a child (or even adult), there is instead talking—so much talking. One loses track of the number of monologues listing out the series of tasks in a particular sub-quest, or explaining the existence of a “luck randomizer,” or how crystals are smashed into dust before being ferried off.
It’s one thing to repeatedly funnel a lot of exposition or functional plotting through a single character; while still suboptimal overall, this tack in its most artful rendering can be absorbed into that character’s personality. It’s the sign of a deeper problem, though, when multiple characters are constantly explaining the scope of its world, relationships between its inhabitants, and almost every single interaction.
The result is a movie that feels like a very colorful, moving instruction manual, in which things… just happen. Sometimes this means there are cute bits of physical comedy, as with Bob’s attempted escape from Sam, in which he walks across a series of opening umbrellas. Most times, though, scenes grind to a halt for an indulged idea (a line dance with bunnies!) that reads as nothing more than a narrative escape chute.
Director Peggy Holmes took over for Kung Fu Panda 3 co-director Alessandro Carloni (who departed over creative differences) either during production or just before the bulk of principle animation took place, depending on what account one chooses to believe. This detail is felt in the film’s lack of clarified stewardship, and, quite frankly, effort. lucky‘s visual design is low-key pleasant, but not necessarily ambitious; it leans into generically appealing, eye-batting character design, and doesn’t build out backgrounds in exacting detail.
Will young kids even notice this? Yes, but not in ways they can articulate—which is a blessing, actually, because after luckythe best fortune one may hope for is a bit of prolonged silence.