Luck Review: John Lasseter’s return to animation feels like Pixar went wrong

During Pixar Animation Studios’ heyday in the 2000s, the studio’s releases seemed absolutely guaranteed to garner rave reviews and strong box offices. Pixar’s long list of achievements, from the Toy Story films to Find Nemo, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and more, resulted in numerous profiles that explored the company’s creative process and its technique of “plussing” during story development, or offering positive suggestions and improvements for elements that didn’t work, rather than negative criticism. It’s not dissimilar to the “yes-and” technique from improvisation: a plussed product may not resemble the original idea very much, but it is built from that idea without the creative team being distracted by second guesses and tearing up their own work down.

happiness, Skydance Animation’s first feature film — and the first film produced by former Disney/Pixar animation director John Lasseter since the company ousted him over sexual harassment complaints — feels like running amok. It’s a film where uninspired ideas become building blocks for more uninspired ideas, until the filmmakers have built an artful shrine to their own whimsical lore. This is a movie that takes its eternally unlucky heroine Sam (Eva Noblezada) to a magical land of happiness, a place full of leprechauns and various animals that are considered good luck in different cultures. But it doesn’t stop there; These animals are also heavily invested in creating magical lucky dust. And also the preservation of magical lucky rocks. And they are powered by magical lucky pennies. There is also a dragon voiced by Jane Fonda.

The Land of Happiness, a glowing fantasy city on a grid of glowing purple and green lines, with a darker city reflected below, in Happiness

Image: Apple TV Plus

In spite of all these magical knick-knacks, happiness is not a particularly magical experience. It feels more like a whiteboard full of brainstorms that nobody would have the heart to erase. It’s generally not that remarkable for a non-Pixar, non-Disney animation studio to backfire with a big budget; In recent years, many talented Disney employees have defected to streaming services and produced feature-length animated films that can’t compete with Pixar’s To reddenDisney’s Encanto, or the diverse textures of non-American animations. but happinesss Pixar-related family tree stands out. Lasseter plays a big part in the project, and Skydance Animation is now backed by Apple, whose former CEO, Steve Jobs, was once the chairman of Pixar.

Like so many other disgraced entertainers, Lasseter couldn’t stay away from the business for long. He joined Skydance in 2019 while the studio was already working on it happiness. His role in this film was likely similar to the non-Pixar Disney films of the late 2000s that he reworked after becoming chief creative officer for all Disney animation. Lasseter hired renowned director Peggy Holmes (who worked on a number of direct-to-DVD Tinkerbell films for Disney in the 2010s) and screenwriter Kiel Murray (who worked with Lasseter on the Cars films) to reconfigure happiness Midstream – the same kind of retuning that often happened with previous Disney and Pixar films, successful or not.

That’s a lot of backstory for just a family-friendly cartoon, although it does reflect the behind-the-scenes process happinessis congested, exaggerated plotting. Sam has been living in a home for orphan girls for a long time. Her self-diagnosed bad luck has kept her from being accepted into an “eternal family” — a term the film uses repeatedly to avoid obscuring its themes and concerns. Now living alone and determined to help her young friend Hazel (Adelynn Spoon) secure her own adoption, Sam stumbles upon a lucky penny dropped by a mysterious black cat named Bob (voiced by Simon Pegg). became. When she loses the coin, she follows Bob to the Land of Fortune in hopes of recovering it so she can bestow his magical properties on Hazel.

Here the business of lucky cats, lucky pigs and lucky bunnies mixes with the magical lucky stones and lucky dust and various bad luck equivalents on another level of the land. There is a random machine that distributes good and bad luck to the human world, ensuring that no type of good fortune overtakes the other. It’s a lot to stay straight. Where from the inside to the outside threatened to overwrite the workings of the human mind and Soul strove to make his abstract metaphysical concepts more concrete, happiness is something much worse: a cartoon with banal ideas about the randomness of fate expressed in a muddled and boring way. It’s like an “inflated” corporate image of a Terry Gilliam film.

As a sensory experience, it’s not much fun either. There are flashes of animated wit, like a hilarious early scene where Sam chases a silent (and lucky) Bob through the city streets, hot on his heels while he uses his luck to constantly dash out of reach . But this sequence also emphasizes how much of the film’s notion of “happiness” has to do with physical dexterity; Sam doesn’t seem so unlucky as he is more of a rom-com style dork. She’s all regular guts, while Bob is all Scottish accented and reluctant to help or even get involved. (Both the voice and demeanor are unfortunately reminiscent of Shrek.) The supposed emotional bond between the two is mentioned more than developed — and it still beats some of the dialogue between human characters, which can look and sound downright robotic. As high-end American animation, this is polished but unremarkable stuff.

The dragon (Jane Fonda) wraps itself around Sam in happiness

Image: Apple TV Plus

In short, nothing about happiness is compelling enough to distract animation fans from its awkward status as Lasseter’s comeback project. This lens only makes the film look weirder. Pixar movies like The Incredibles, Ratatouilleand Monster Inc. all championing excellence that suits their corporate representative, so acknowledging both the existence and the randomness of happiness seems at first like a different way of looking at the world, even an act of remorse on the part of Lasseter. But perhaps this story appealed to him because it allowed him to view his active failures simply as bad breaks – character-building obstacles, as the film ultimately characterizes bad luck. Either way, it’s hard for seasoned animation fans to ignore his behind-the-scenes presence.

Initially, happiness seems like a watered down version of From the inside to the outside – an imaginative exploration of how life’s setbacks shape and even guide us, trading the generic ‘bad luck’ for the vivid, personified sadness of the Pixar film. But the Skydance version of this theme ends up looking more like Pixar’s films about extraordinary characters doing extraordinary things. happiness makes the process of surviving bad luck suspiciously dependent on a character having enough courage and guts. Incidentally, it is not interested in confronting genuine injustice from the inside to the outside admits that there are authentic real reasons for sadness and that it’s okay to experience it. and happiness politely passes on a chance to grapple with the causes of this injustice, or the ways in which circumstances of class or race can make what appears to be random “lucky streak” far more damaging to some groups than others.

The idea of ​​solving and resolving any problem is a given in family movies (and fables since the dawn of time), and they drive a fairly familiar plot happiness, which tries to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. That’s also part of what makes it such a persistent, off-putting experience. Regardless of what Lasseter had in mind when crafting this wayward story, the film’s use of Sam and Hazel’s orphan status to provoke sympathy feels pretty cheap and overdone long before the film gilds the lily by gilding characters things say like “It’s a happy crying” during the emotional peak. Lasseter’s absence doesn’t seem to have prompted much thought about his end, or sharpened his once unbeatable sense of a unique and personal story. happinesshowever, unwittingly pleads its involvement as a definite minus.

happiness now streams on Apple TV Plus. Luck Review: John Lasseter’s return to animation feels like Pixar went wrong

Charles Jones

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