Good fortune is a very real and quantifiable asset in the 3-D CG animated feature “Luck,” the first animated venture from Skydance Media – and the first project produced by disgraced industry figure John Lasseter since allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 2017.
Sam (voiced by Eva Noblezada, “Yellow Rose”), a self-declared unlucky girl raised in foster care, doesn’t think of luck, or lack thereof, as a superstitious belief or as a placebo to explain the unexplainable events in our unpredictable day to day. For her, it’s the root cause of all her misfortune, big and small, including missing out on being adopted. Now that she has aged out of the system, her only desire is for her younger friend Hazel (Adelynn Spoon, “Watchmen”) to find a forever home.
A longtime choreographer at Walt Disney Studios, Peggy Holmes directs this exceptionally crafted magical adventure. Despite having an emotional arc that becomes evident within its first few minutes, “Luck” registers as original enough conceptually to maintain one’s interest as we follow the formulaic structure of its screenplay. The resulting fable feels like a typical case of “you’ve definitely seen this before, but not precisely in this manner.”
As Sam starts her new job and learns to live on her own amid plenty of bad luck-induced mishaps, she comes across a life-changing lucky penny after an encounter with a black cat named Bob (amusingly voiced with a British accent by Simon Pegg). Not surprisingly, she accidentally loses the precious coin. If she could only get her hands on another, she figures, then she could help Hazel. Her quest leads her into another world, much to Bob’s vocal dismay.
Leprechauns, rabbits, cats, and pigs in golden suits populate the Land of Luck, working by fabricating luck or polishing lucky pennies in peculiar assembly lines. One could imagine Jack Skellington arriving at a place like this if he’d chosen to enter the tree with the four-leaf clover in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” instead of heading to the North Pole.
Sam, an average-size human, sticks out because of her height in the luminous realm, which is comprised of floating elevators and a large machine that mixes good luck (a green glittery substance) and bad luck (a purple counterpart) before it reaches people.
Thanks to the skills of a talented group of animation professionals, Holmes delivers a story that, while not exactly unique in style, does show admirable quality. The character design in “Luck” shines best in the main characters, such as in the skin and movement of the Dragon (Jane Fonda) that serves as CEO of this universe or Bob’s poses that resemble those of Jiji in “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” However, some of the supporting creatures seem far more generic; the porcine friends here almost look identical to those in the “Sing” franchise.
Early on, while Sam and Bob are still on the human plane, there’s a chase scene through a city just before sunset and just after rain. The detailed texture of the background surfaces, how the light reflects on the puddles of water and the way the sunset’s dreamy light washes over the chase – which also includes multiple clever sight gags – demonstrate the top-notch digital artistry enlisted to render this film above average.
Although “Luck” can’t reach the sophistication level of the best Pixar features, it stands as a far more accomplished effort from a technical standpoint and in the resonance of its story than the dime-a-dozen, talking-animal cash cows infested with vapid pop-culture references that have become the new standard in Hollywood animated releases.
On the other hand, “Luck” falls into the ranks of a recurrent trope in modern American animation: It appears as though creators can engage with the supernatural or the life processes beyond our control only if they are depicted as corporations that must run smoothly, with a hierarchy where there’s a boss and employees that carry out labor. It’s a trope that has surfaced recently in “Inside Out,” “The Boss Baby” and “Soul,” where otherworldly ideas are business.
Capitalism is embedded in how the storytellers think about these extraordinary worlds. Even in these imagined kingdoms, whimsy cannot exist for the sake of whimsy alone, but it must be tied to production and exploitation. The apex for this trend must be Santa Claus and his toy factory, where elves are employees manufacturing goods. It’s quite bizarre.
To complement and contrast the idyllic nature of the Dragon’s fortune-focused operation, there’s also an upside-down land in “Luck” (think “Patema Inverted”) where all bad luck comes from, and though it doesn’t operate as smoothly as the other side, its existence pushes Sam and Bob, as their friendship evolves through many trials, to understand that on occasion, what we consider an ill-fated event might be a gift in disguise.
Coded into the film’s expected happy ending, there’s a touchingly optimistic moral about how our appreciation for the positive occurrences in our existence stems from knowing that the powers of fortuity ebb and flow. No one’s luck is fixed. And without having experienced those streaks of unpleasantly surprising circumstances that makes us wonder about our sanity, we might not be able to recognize when Lady Luck, or whatever force one believes is responsible for good karma, is on truly our side.
“Luck” premieres on Apple TV+ on August 5.