Thoughts on ‘Sing’

The other day I checked out Sing, Illumination’s 2016 animated jukebox musical about anthropomorphic animals trying to save a koala’s theater. Overall, I found it pretty enjoyable. It’s probably not going to be a favorite, but it was fun, uplifting, and made some good use of its premise.

The story: Buster Moon is the owner of the once-prestigious Moon Theater, which has fallen on hard times after a string of flops and poor financial management (yes, it’s essentially the same set up as The Producers). Desperate to drive business before the bank forecloses, he hits on the idea to hold a singing contest with open auditions, giving local talent a chance to shine and (hopefully) generating interest in the theater. He intends to offer a $1,000 cash prize (which he can just scrape together by selling all non-essentials), but a series of accidents on the part of his ancient, but loyal secretary Miss Crawly results in the zero key being pushed two too many times and the flyers cast upon the city before they can be double-checked, committing him instead to a $100,000 prize that he absolutely cannot afford: a fact that doesn’t come to his attention until after he’s already selected his finalists (following an audition montage that might be the funniest scene in the film).

Said motley crew of hopefuls include Rosita, a porcine housewife with an enormous family and workaholic husband who all generally ignore her; Johnny, a sensitive gorilla whose father runs a gang; Mike, an arrogant street performing mouse (side note: is the fact that the mouse is a greedy, egocentric jerk possibly a shot at Disney?); Ash, a punk-rock teenage porcupine who is trying to get an act together with her self-impressed boyfriend; and Gunter, a German pig dancer who is the only one who seems to have no personal issues at all and largely remains blissfully unaware of the drama surrounding him. Later they’re joined by Meena, a painfully shy young elephant whose nerves cost her the audition, but eventually lands a job as a stage hand.

Interestingly enough, the main cast is initially accompanied by several minor characters, including a frog troupe and an operatic camel, but they end up dropping out for one reason or another over the course of the story (“They said I was an intolerable egomaniac! I don’t even know what that means!”). It’s a good touch few a few reasons. One is that it lends a bit of realism to the proceedings, as not everyone involved ends up pulling together. Another is that it adds to the sense that the show is a slow-motion disaster that Buster is just barely keeping together – much like the theater itself. This lends credence to later decisions he makes and further emphasizes the desperation that serves as the excuse for many of his actions.

On that note, Buster does several morally dubious things over the course of the film to try to keep himself above water, such as stealing electricity from a neighboring building and slipping out the back when his workers come demanding payment. Not to mention, of course, allowing the contestants to continue believing that there’s $100,000 prize waiting for them (though to be fair, he does intend to make good and is trying to get the money together the whole time).

This is rather refreshing, to be honest. Such a character as the protagonist is a nice break from the usual soulful young hero type. He’s a slightly-shady businessman with a good heart but loose morals where his great obsession is concerned. But he remains sympathetic because we’re shown how much the theater means to him and how much work he puts into it. I like the way he talks to the building too, like when he knocks a bit of masonry off he pats the façade and assures it “I’ll fix that, don’t worry.”

Again, it also helps a lot that he doesn’t set out to be dishonest; the discrepancy in the prize is an accident and once he becomes aware of it, while he doesn’t correct the mistake, he does set out to try to acquire the money by honest or semi-honest means.

In any case, it’s a nice bit of moral greyness, though I wish they had followed through on it a bit more; maybe with the cast giving him at least some pushback for it (though to be fair, most weren’t in it for the money anyway).

There seems to my mind to be some inconsistency with Buster, however: he has a great eye for talent, but only sometimes has a good idea for how to use it. That fits with his putting on a string of flops, but as a flaw it seems to come and go as the story needs it. Like when he picks out Ash as the more talented of the double act she forms with her boyfriend, but then tries to use her as a teen idol singing cheesy pop songs, despite her clear disdain for the material. And she is the only one of the group that he makes such a blunder on.

Though on second thought, that could be explained by his thinking that this is popular music and is desperate to attract people. In which case, that would make a lot of sense: he has a good eye for talent, but tries to cater too much to what he thinks audiences want…except they don’t really follow through on that idea or make anything of it apart from this one instance (and even then, as soon as he hears her self-composed song, he drops the pop-idol idea and tells her to sing that instead).

So, it’s either a half-realized idea or a bit of an inconsistency, though a minor one, and frankly it’s a credit to the film’s writing that such a point stands out as an issue at all, or that it allows for the inferred explanation. It’s a flaw, but a flaw indicative of quality.

Matthew McConaughey does a really excellent job voicing him, as he ought to as he’s more or less carrying the whole film. He’s got this constantly enthusiastic, eager attitude, rushing from scheme to scheme and building up his cast members even as disaster looms ever higher. His performance reminds me of Johnny Depp’s in Ed Wood (Depp was one of the actors considered for the character); the genuine eagerness and resolute optimism of a dreamer, coupled with the frantic improvisations of a con-man, but one whose operations are based on sincerity rather than selfishness. But then he also hits the quieter, downbeat moments as well, and throughout the whole film he completely sells the character’s sincere enthusiasm for what he is doing. Again, the film kind of lives or dies on this performance, and I’d say McConaughey nails it.

On that note, the celebrity voice cast is mostly…fine. They’re not as distracting as I thought they might be, and generally voice the characters very well, though I don’t know if most of the big name stars really added much. Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, etc. really aren’t very distinctive talents, so you could have had almost any skilled actor / singer take the roles without losing much (and really, why would you hire a great talent like Nick Offerman and have him voice the guy who has maybe ten mumbled lines across the entire film?). But everyone does a good job with their roles, giving some legitimate heart and soul to the characters, especially during the big emotional scenes.

The stand out to me was definitely Scarlett Johansson, who gives a really good performance as Ash, projecting just the right blend of toughness, sarcasm, heart, and vulnerability to the character (the scene where she tries to sing a cheery pop song while breaking down in tears is an acting highlight). I actually didn’t even recognize her at first, which given how distinctive her voice is I would call a real credit to how well she plays the role.

Character wise, they’re all fairly straightforward with clear goals and motivations, but enough layers that they mostly feel like real people. I like the way Rosita, for all her frustrations about her home life, nevertheless shows sympathy and affection to her husband, and he to her (albeit in a distracted way). And the fact that it’s clear Johnny loves and respects his father, despite their differences. And generally the fact that all the leads (except Mike) are genuinely nice people (like how Johnny wishes Meena luck at the auditions when they’re still complete strangers). Heck, even Mike the asshole mouse is at least allowed to be a genuine talent. There was definite care taken in these characters and their story arcs.

As a particular example of this, there’s a bit part way through where Ash catches her boyfriend cheating on her and throws him out. It’s a satisfying moment, since he’s been an ass to her throughout, and a lesser film would have ended it there with her triumphant. But here, she’s emotionally devastated by the experience, leading to the aforementioned breakdown scene, and she continues to show pain over it for quite a while until she finds a way to process her emotions. See, just the fact that they let the character feel something like that, and kept in mind that her perspective on it is not going to be our perspective evinces some real care and thought on the part of the writers.

The story in flows quite well, with a real sense of building emotion as the characters each experience escalating stakes and setbacks due to their involvement with the show, and the theater itself increasingly shows its age. The way they all parallel each other and the progress of the theater is really quite well done, as is the way they deploy the songs to help move the story along and illustrate the mood (sometimes in multiple ways at once).

I also like how the final crisis comes about; things come to a head when Mike’s arrogance comes back to bite (well, eat) him in a big way. It’s a logical consequence of the characters being who they are, but it isn’t the result of gross stupidity or negligence on Buster’s part. As far as it went, he does questionable and arguably foolish things, but nothing really seriously idiotic, or something he ought to have known better on; it’s all a matter of him being in a tight place and trying to hold things together long enough to get out of it. Only, the delicate façade he’s being constructing ends up having another character’s selfishness and stupidity crash into it, naturally bringing the whole thing down. It’s a fair and logical way to bring about the low point (kudos also to the film for making a point of establishing that one group of participants were unharmed by the event, averting a potentially main-cast centric morality).

That’s really what stands out to me, I think; the emotional highlights of this film are top-notch, especially the big concert climax, where each character completes his or her arc in style one after another, and we get one final, low-key pay-off that ties it all together. I’d say the first two-thirds of the film are good, if a little shaky, but the finale is excellent.

That said, my main criticism for the story is that the singers themselves never really have a chance to develop relationships with one another. They end up as a close-knit group of friends, but there’s almost nothing that builds into that apart from a few offhand kind words. They hardly even interact with one another, except for Rosita and Gunter, but Gunter is by far the least developed of the cast, to the point of being more of a running joke than a realized character. Buster also gets a fair amount of screen time with Meena (“Is this legal, Mr. Moon?” “Uh, I’m not sure”), which is nice, but I would have wanted something like that among the contestants themselves. Their all becoming friends and comrades apparently happens off screen (ironically enough, the only one who has multiple significant scenes with his fellow contestants is Mike, and those are all just him being an ass).

For instance, there’s a bit where Rosita comforts Ash after she has her breakdown, but it’s cut short so that she can run onto stage to do her own number. Why couldn’t we have had a longer scene of her commiserating with the girl, perhaps drawing on her experience as a mother and on her own romance with her husband, emphasizing that there was a spark there once and helping to set up the payoff with him at the end? Or maybe we could have had a scene of the group of them just hanging out after rehearsal one night, maybe talking about what they’d each do with the money if they won? That could have been an amazing scene; the pieces are all there in the form of interesting, well-realized characters. Instead it feels like their connection is just assumed rather than established, which is frankly disappointing.

There is another issue here, though, and it has to do with the film as a whole. It’s this: Rosita’s husband is disinterested and so neglectful that he doesn’t even notice when she automates her morning routine for a few days. Johnny’s father is a hyper-masculine tough guy who doesn’t understand his son and is furious when he finds out he wants to be a singer. Ash’s boyfriend is condescending and dismissive of her. Mike is an arrogant jerk.

Do you see the pattern? Just about every traditionally masculine character is a negative character, while the positives are sensitive Johnny, free-spirited Gunter, odd-ball Buster, and quiet, under-achieving Eddie (Buster’s friend from the rich theater family that’s been funding him up until now).

Fortunately, the pattern is broken up somewhat by Meena’s ultra-supportive grandfather (though even he is rather insensitive and overbearing), and Buster’s late, revered father, as well as by the less-positive female characters like the bank lady and Eddie’s intimidating grandmother, a famous retired actress. And most if not all of the above characters get moments of redemption or at least layers to their characters. So it’s nowhere near as bad as it might have been. Still, it’s hard not to see the pattern and it is undoubtedly annoying in the context of the world we live in.

Your mileage will vary on how much it bothers you. Me, I just wish there had been a bit more balance; maybe giving Rosita’s husband a bit more to do during the story to emphasize that he’s not intentionally neglecting her (again, how do you hire Nick Offerman and give him practically nothing to do?). Just as an example. Again, it’s not awful, but it’s an area that strikes a bit of a sour note.

(Also, Mike’s potential comeuppance is pretty grim for a kid’s movie – especially as it follows directly on his one positive moment in the film – though it is at least left ambiguous whether he got away or not).

That said, I really like how Johnny’s father is redeemed. The scene really does feel earned, and not only that but it’s completely consistent with the characters as they’ve been established. Again, the climax has some spectacular payoffs, but this is probably the best of the bunch.

The humor generally works pretty well. Like I said, the audition scene is probably the funniest for the string of different animal acts. Buster gets a lot of laughs throughout with his eager optimism (“No, that’s the bucket for the leak”), and Miss Crawly has quite a few running gags associated with her general oddness (including one where she never can successfully deliver coffee: “I got thirsty going up all those stairs”). Overall, the humor is surprisingly gentle for the most part; there’s only one body-function gag that I can recall, and a lot of it simply revolves around the characters being who they are (Gunter gets a number of laughs from his Germanisms: “You just have to move your body parts!”). Like, one big laugh comes from Buster trying to demonstrate to Ash how he wants her to sing the cheesy pop song, simply because it’s a koala voiced by Matthew McConaughey singing ‘Call Me Maybe’. It’s then followed up by her hilariously sarcastic rendition.

In terms of style, the film (wisely in my opinion) never tries to make itself a consistent or functional world; questions of diet and predation are mostly glossed over without comment, as are the logistics of a society of all differently-sized animals. It operates on the logic of a classic Disney cartoon: “All the characters are animals, or basically people in animal suits. Don’t question it, just enjoy what we do with it.” This is fable logic (as mentioned in yesterday’s post), where it simply presents a premise as-is and focuses entirely on the story without bothering with world building.

Again, I think this approach works a lot better than something like Zootopia’s more fleshed-out attempt at world-building, because it ironically raises far fewer questions (e.g. “Wait, so if even the rabbit is kaiju-sized in the rodent neighborhood, how the heck did the cops operate here before? Was this just a no-man’s land of crime or something? In fact, in a city like this, wouldn’t it be a necessity for the cops to have different sized officers for different neighborhoods, rendering this whole plot kind of moot?” etc.). Sing just shrugs at its world as a given and moves on.

As in the best classic cartoons, the characters all being animals is mostly used for humor or characterization purposes, and the choices mostly fit their roles quite well. The domestically-inclined mother is a pig. The rocker is a porcupine. The severe bank manager is a llama. The ancient secretary is a lizard. The egocentric jerk is a mouse, and so forth. There are also some amusing little bits of animal humor filling out the screen, such as a rabbit and a tortoise that show up periodically in the background (the best animal joke, for my money, is the fact that Mike’s spending spree commences with his getting a credit card from a bull and ends with him crossing a trio of angry bears).

Buster being a koala is likewise perfect: koalas have that simultaneously self-important and ridiculous face that lends itself well to this kind of ‘sincere and over-enthusiastic business owner barely keeping things together’ character.

You know, when I first finished the film, my impression was ‘good, nothing special’. But honestly, the more I think back over it, the better it gets. There is some really strong material here; the characters are well-sketched and well-acted, the story is engaging, and the singing is (unsurprisingly) quite good.

And something else; it’s kind of hard to pin down, but despite the celebrity cast and pop-song soundtrack, the film doesn’t feel like a cynical cash-grab attempt. It legitimately comes across as a sincere passion project that the filmmakers were personally invested in. Maybe because the soundtrack includes a lot of different songs and different kinds of songs from different eras and not just current hits, or maybe because the humor is mostly easy-going and earned rather than broadly low-brow and obvious. Or because the emotional scenes are done with some real weight and sensitivity, or because the characters are generally multi-layered rather than each just being a walking gimmick.

Garth Jennings, the director, is mostly known for music videos and quirky art-house films (he also directed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I actually remember liking a good deal). Perhaps that’s where that sense of sincerity comes from.

In any case, I enjoyed it a lot and it’s only gotten better on further consideration. I’d say it’s well-worth checking out.

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