We can all remember where we were in 2010 when Illumination made a pageant-like debut with Despicable Me. A new force in animation taking a dangerous chance on wading in waters long made choppy by the likes of Disney, DreamWorks, and until recently, Blue Sky. At that point, their first statement wasn’t a complete masterpiece, it could never be as impactful or nostalgic as Toy Story or Shrek. We fast forward twelve years later, and those very same echoes resonate. Only louder, and further leaning on the mediocre. David Ellison’s Skydance Animation, the newest player in the game having notched experience with CG in the gaming world, looks to pull the same card. And following a similar pattern, with a one-time titan of the field staying on the down low as a creative head in search of redemption. This might not be the way to achieve it.
The very fact that Luck went in a completely different direction after former Pixar leader John Lasseter was hired might be a fair tell for its lack of fair-weather fortune. An aspect playing so directly on screen, but not enough to detract sharp-eyed older viewers from its placid, nonspecific story. One where luck may clearly be a state of mind, an attitude toward life, a familiar crutch.
Emancipated orphan Sam Greenfield (Eva Noblazeda) knows the feeling all too well. Just turned eighteen, never having found her forever family, she looks for a fresh start on her own, working in a garden shop while taking online college classes. The early steps of an average existence made only interesting by her brushes with bad luck. Even while making breakfast (her toast lands jelly-side down, in a display of relatable misery), misfortune strikes when least expected. She can adapt well, but it still drives her into fits of longing. Wondering whether anything can go right, she encounters a random black cat, who leaves behind what’s described as a “lucky penny.”
Immediately, Sam’s klutziness fades, and her life slowly stabilizes while holding out hope for her former roommate who’s seeking her own perfect fit. Once the coin, again through physical gags and hijinks p to excess, accidentally drops into the toilet, Sam’s back to square one. So too, is the cat, a talking one named Bob (Simon Pegg) who’s already on thin ice with his handlers in the Land of Luck. She follows the feline down an Alice-like rabbit hole into the Land of Luck, a realm of optimism where both good and bad luck falls under two separate categories.
With time running short to retrieve the missing penny or a close facsimile, the pair hesitantly team up for an extensive wild goose chase, displaying the process of how luck is made, involving leprechauns, pigs, and rabbits. The convergence of these two buckets plays like a mix between a sausage factory training video and an episode of The Amazing Race. Whatever twists and turns are doled out by director Peggy Holmes (The Pirate Fairy), and co-writers Kiel Murray (Raya and the Last Dragon), Jonathan Aibel, and Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda) amount to only limited surprise, the kind that’s simply unwelcome, unflattering, and downright unrealistic.
As evidenced, Sam does often think inventively to combat her bad luck. A life’s trial grown from her poor history at the orphanage into what might amount to a mere inferiority complex. It’s a testament to Noblazeda’s portrayal, stealing the rug from, let’s say, Miranda Cosgrove, masking her insecurities with a mild popstar flair. You know, for the TikTok crowd.
It’s all so genuine, yet still false to reality. Same to Pegg’s portrayal of a stereotype-defying critter, highly suspect with the least convincing Scottish accent in recent cinema, a character more destined to have gone to James McAvoy. And more like Miyazaki’s Jiji than one would admit. Sight unseen, it’s a carbon copy of various films and their most successful elements, straddling the line between generic and eye-catching. Bob might be the start, as the Land of Luck best represents a sterilized, Willy Wonka/Tomorrowland-hybrid factory town. Even the Bad Luck dark side appears overly tidy and organized, well behaved, though muted in color. Down to the nascent shoehorning of a kid-friendly watering hole for its workers, a less refined Cheers where John Ratzenberger’s charm aims to bless the project.
And that presents its other significant misstep, a vast ensemble overcompensating for every other element in Holmes’ advisement going to forgery. Aiding Sam and Bob’s trek are a very corporate-focused dragon (Jane Fonda, not phoned in), and a kindly, forlorn unicorn (Flula Borg, subdued). Not as understanding is Bob’s superior (Whoopi Goldberg, astonishingly chill) and his leprechaun coworker Gerry (Colin O’Donoghue, spry). The latter duo sees through Bob’s shoddiness, looking out to exploit his weaknesses. Any character beyond the two leads poses a questionable stake in the story, nonetheless, granted little time to employ themselves within this slapdash realm’s protocols.
The majority of Holmes’ runtime is spent laying down the mechanics of a system that wasn’t quite interesting to begin with, and not so much the childlike whimsy this film would’ve once demanded. Perhaps Murray’s concept on paper better captured the depth and consequence of Sam’s self-pity, not just simply applying it to a stock corporate comedy trapped in the R&D phase. Luck is plenty cursed, considering the team behind it, still searching for their identity in a sea of established names. And the figure in charge, who once embraced his eye for an inventive story, now fallen to the earth. Youngsters will be engaged by the work, others bored by its denial of foresight or originality. Overall, curiosity value is still moderately high, if only to witness another cartoon experiment, absorbed in its trial and error. Luck really could use all the good it can grasp. (C-; 2/5 Horns Up!)
Luck debuts on Apple TV+, with a supplemental theatrical component in select markets (locally playing at Cinemark in Federal Way and Bellevue) August 5; rated G; 105 minutes.