Thoughts on ‘Sing 2’

I liked Sing a lot more than I expected, and in fact found that it only got better upon reflection. So, naturally, I decided to check out the sequel to see if they managed to keep to the same level of quality.

Honestly, this one’s even better.

Some time after the events of the first film, the Moon Theater is still going strong, with Meena the elephant, Johnny the gorilla, and Rosita and Gunter the pigs forming a tight-knit troupe of players performing regularly to sold-out crowds under the leadership of Buster Moon (Ash the porcupine, meanwhile, is pursuing a solo career as a rock star, though she maintains ties with the group). Moon has dreams of taking his people beyond their provincial theater and into the world of professional entertainment, but those dreams receive a severe check when a talent scout for the powerful Crystal Entertainment company frankly informs him that they “aren’t good enough” to perform on that level.

With some prodding from Nana (the aging starlet from the first film and now his chief patron and supporter), Buster rushes the team to Redshore City, using some of his old trickery to con their way into auditions for hot-tempered lupine media mogul, Jimmy Crystal. Through a series of hasty improvisations, Buster manages to get him to agree to let them put on a show, promising that it will feature rock legend Clay Calloway…only for Buster to subsequently learn that Calloway has been a retired recluse for fifteen years following the death of his wife.

From there the team works to get the show together on a tight deadline, each facing their own particular challenges as they try to take their performances to the next level. Johnny’s part requires intensive dancing and his choreographer turns out to be an abusive perfectionist who takes an immediate disliking to him. Shy Meena’s part involves a romantic duet, but she’s never even had a boyfriend and knows nothing of romance (her obnoxiously self-absorbed partner doesn’t help). And Rosita is set to take on the lead role, a dream come true…until it’s discovered that she has a crippling fear of heights that prevents her attempting a big set-piece stunt, leading to Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha getting the role instead. Except that Porsha can’t act and doesn’t work well with Gunter.

Meanwhile Buster, with Ash’s help, tries to track down Calloway and convince him to come out of retirement.

Oh, and it turns out that when Crystal threatened Moon with bodily harm if he made him look bad, he may not have been exaggerating.

So, the story this time around is accordingly a little less formulaic than the first film. That took on a classic ‘liar revealed’ story, where the hero improvises a deception that comes out at the end of the second act, prompting a ‘darkest hour’ that ends with everyone pulling together to make it a reality after all. For a while, it looks like the sequel might be following suit (and indeed when I first heard the plot I thought it would be), but instead Buster’s lie gets found out pretty quickly when Crystal takes the logical step of simply having his people call Calloway’s lawyers to check up on his story. It’s both a smart twist that prevents the film from being a mere re-tread of the original and a signal to the audience and the characters alike that the old tactics are not going to work here. Crystal is too on-the-ball and too dangerous for Buster’s con-man tricks to save him, and he certainly isn’t going to be as forgiving as the troupers were if things don’t work out. Buster and his people have no choice but to deliver or face the consequences.

Crystal, the successful media mogul, serves as a kind of dark reflection of Buster, the local theater owner. Where Buster does what he does for the love of the art and cares about his people, Crystal does it for the ego, the chance to aggrandize himself and he sees everyone around him – including his daughter – as mere tools to that end.

This is highlighted in another audition sequence early on in the film (which, like its counterpart in the original, is one of the funniest parts of the movie). Whereas the original’s was a line of hopeful amateur acts that Buster was mostly enthusiastic about, sending the also-rans away with a word of friendly encouragement, this time it’s a string of professional, high-quality acts, mostly involving intense choreography…and Crystal shows nothing but boredom throughout and brusquely dismisses each one in turn by simply slamming a buzzer.

Indeed, there are a lot of parallels and call-backs to the original, but these are mostly done in a comparatively subtle and thoughtful way. The writers don’t just repeat lines or moments that you might remember fondly; they took the time to think through the more fundamental elements of the original film and what they meant to the characters and proceed to bring them back in ways that highlight their continuing journeys.

For instance, Johnny’s story in the first film centered around his relationship with his proud, demanding, and very different father. Fundamentally, though, the film showed that he did love and respect his father, despite their differences, and his father fundamentally loved him despite his anger at him.

This time around, Johnny is once again trying to earn the respect of a male authority figure. But unlike his father, Kickenklober (and what a great name, by the way) understands Johnny’s dreams perfectly well. He simply thinks that Johnny isn’t good enough for them and intends to prove it. Johnny thus has to earn the respect, not of an uncomprehending family member, but of someone who actively despises him as unworthy of his calling.

Likewise Ash is once again faced with a difficult male counterpart. But here it isn’t her self-obsessed loser boyfriend, but her rock idol, someone she respects, but who doesn’t want anything to do with her (her newfound confidence is demonstrated in an early scene where she walks out on an arrogant club owner who tries to stiff her). She can’t simply let him go; she has to find a way to connect with the man. Calloway’s relationship with his late, revered wife also stands as the healthy counterpart to Ash’s relationship with her boyfriend, being a case of inspiration and deep mutual affection: what she wanted her relationship to be. Just as part of her story last time was processing her breakup, so this time it’s helping him to finally make peace with his loss.

And like in the first film, one character is introduced as a street performer. Only whereas Mike’s arrogance and greed was shown by his basically mugging someone whom he felt didn’t give him enough, here Nooshy the lynx cheerfully accepts a small bit of candy from a wide-eyed child with a warm word of thanks, establishing her as a kindhearted character.

You see what I mean; these are the kinds of parallels that require a bit of thought and understanding of what’s going on under the surface in both films to notice. Then even when they do make direct call backs to lines or events in the first film, it’s in a logical and character-consistent way (e.g. “Nowhere to go but up” is shown to be the troupe’s rallying cry before a performance). It’s one of several signs that the filmmakers trust the audience and their story, not feeling like they have to spell everything out for us or keep a breakneck pace in order to hold our attention.

On that note, the humor has the same restrained and character-centric approach as the first time around. One joke, for instance, has Buster trying to get the head of the stage crew to cover for him. But, since the walrus has no personal loyalty to this guy, he simply announces Buster’s unpreparedness to the whole crew (“I’m looking in his eyes, I see nothing but fear. And a little shame”). Another is just a visual gag of Crystal inviting Buster to ‘walk with me’, and they walk on a rotating Rings of Saturn prop, so that they stay in the same place throughout the conversation.

Miss Crawley gets to be, if anything, even more eccentric than before, and receives one of the funniest bits of the film when she gets left in charge of production for a while and starts channeling R. Lee Ermy (“Take it again and let’s see some juice in it this time!”). Kikenklober’s abusive Gallicism is often pretty funny as well (“tippy-toes! Tippy-toes!”), at least when it isn’t being played for drama. Meena’s plot line also gets a lot of humor as she repeatedly ends up almost cringing out of her skin while her hilariously obnoxious co-star climbs all over her personal space.

On the subject of said co-star, once again the film shows an awareness that, well, not everyone gets redemption, but that doesn’t really matter as far as the performance goes. The guy remains a shallow bore throughout, to the very end and, unlike Mike, never receives any kind of comeuppance for it. Because sometimes people are just jerks, but you still have to work with them. His correction is not the characters’ job.

Likewise, I like what they do with Porsha, who is a spoiled, shallow diva, but nevertheless receives sympathy from both the cast and the film itself for her fundamentally unhappy situation, ending up with a redemption arc of her own. When she thinks Buster’s firing her (he’s actually just re-casting her in another role), she storms out in a rage, crying that everyone hates her. But then when she comes back, the rest of the cast welcomes her with open arms. Because, regardless of everything, she’s one of the cast and thus one of them.

I think her story could have used maybe one or two more scenes to be honest; something bridging the gap where it ‘clicks’ that the constructive criticism she gets from Buster and company evinces a more sincere good will than her father’s disinterested indulgence. Likewise a brief moment where she and Rosita put on makeup together could have been made into an actual exchange to develop her nice side a bit more. But even so, I at least like the good-heartedness at work as the characters extend some sincere understanding to a superficially unpleasant character (on that subject, I appreciate how most of the professional extras and such – e.g. Johnny’s fellow dancers – are perfectly nice and respectful to the troupers, preventing their experience from being too uniformly negative).

The cast as a whole gets more opportunity to interact with one another, and though I still would have liked more of that, what we have is great. Like when Johnny comes off his disastrous first dance rehearsal, Rosita reassures him “the first week is always tough.” Or them all collaborating backstage during their opening show. They also just generally spend more time as a group, working together and supporting one another, convincingly conveying the impression of closely-knit friends and colleagues who are used to each other’s company.

One of my favorite scenes is when Rosita’s children come to visit, and the piglets not only swarm their mother, but every other member of the cast as well, who immediately start playing with them. It’s not only adorable, but once again serves as character development: the kids are evidently very familiar with and fond of the other cast members, indicating that they’ve all been spending a lot of time together on stage and off, illustrating how much they’ve all become a part of one another’s lives.

By the way, this points also to the fact that the faint anti-masculine pattern of the original has been definitely smoothed over this time. Norman and the piglets are entirely positive figures now (he has nothing but pride for his wife’s talents), as are Johnny’s father and his gang, who make a showy return late in the story. Johnny himself is forced to develop his more aggressive and traditionally masculine side over the course of his storyline (he also expresses enthusiasm at the prospect of a big fight scene, foreshadowing that he does have such a side to him).

We still have a negative ‘alpha-male’ type in Crystal, but he’s balanced this time with Calloway’s equally strong, but more positive portrayal (I rather wish they’d found a way to have the two confront each other directly to underline the contrast, but alas it never happens). Likewise Meena gets a love interest in the form of a good-natured ice-cream salesman.

Meanwhile we also have less-than-positive female characters in Porsha and Suki, Crystal’s talent scout the latter of who, though not really mean, is at least dismissive of the Moon Theater Troupe from the start. Though both characters have a redemptive arc.

Gunter, the least developed of the cast last time, gets more development this time around as well, revealing a creative side by providing the story for their show and requiring Buster to rein him in because he keeps getting new ideas (“Mama always said, ‘Gunter, you’re not as stupid as your papa!'”).

The anthropomorphic animal world is once again played in a delightfully loose, but well-considered style, with the characters being animals as a way of underlining their personalities. And once again, the choices made are all pretty much perfect. The mobbed-up media mogul is a wolf. The legendary rock star is a lion. The free-spirited street performer is a lynx. And, perhaps most perfectly of all, the arrogant French choreographer is a proboscis monkey.

There are a lot just really good details and marks of care throughout the film. When Buster discovers just how far Crystal’s willing to go, for instance, he very realistically goes into a full-bore panic. Because this isn’t the kind of character who is used to facing the possibility of bodily harm; he’s a theater owner, not an action hero. His first instinct is to get out of Dodge as soon as possible, and it isn’t until he gets some time and a calming influence that he even considers anything else. Likewise when the mogul’s thugs come knocking, he very quickly shoots down any idea of trying to fight them because, again, these are performers, not soldiers. There’s no suggestion of weaponizing dance moves or anything equally moronic. They run for it, and then when it comes time to make a confrontation they bring in Johnny’s old gang to provide security.

Or notice how well-considered Nooshy’s reactions are when Johnny approaches her to ask for lessons. She’s friendly, but very cautious with him, sticking to public places, keeping a sharp eye for inconsistencies in his story, and refusing to simply trust him until he proves his bona fides (“how do I know you’re not a weirdo?”). Because, well, she’s a young woman (lynx) having a complete stranger trying to get her to come with him to ‘rehearsal space’. He proves himself by busting out with his professional-level singing in the middle of the ice-cream parlor.

Again, the filmmakers considered who the characters are, what resources they have, and what their reactions to these kinds of situation would be.

Then there are a ton of little details in this film evincing the care and thought that went into it, things you might not even notice the first few times you watch, but which show the filmmakers were paying attention. Like when the cast have to jump out a hotel window at one point, Johnny carries Rosita out. Because the film remembered that she’s afraid of heights and it would be inconsistent for her to simply be able to make this jump on her own. Or the fact that in Calloway’s house you can see a wheelchair stored away in a closet, giving a small, tangible connection to his wife’s passing. I also like how Buster has photographs of all the troupe in his office, and that they’re artistic glamor shots rather than simple pictures (as they should be for would-be professional performers).

I think my favorite such detail, though, comes when Ash is sitting on Calloway’s porch, singing one of his songs. He joins her, causing her to stop, and he motions for her to go on. She does…but in a noticeably weaker voice than before. As she should when her idol is sitting right next to her.

See, I love that because it’s the sort of thing where you probably wouldn’t have registered its absence, but the fact that either the director or the actress (or both) took the effort to think through what the character would be feeling in that scene and made sure to convey it in that way shows how much they were invested in the film.

That’s really one of the major takeaways; the film trusts its story to be interesting. It doesn’t feel the need to constantly be dangling gags and craziness in front of our faces to keep our attention, but assumes we’ll be invested in the characters and their struggle.

Quite frankly, it’s a mark of quality filmmaking when a cartoon porcupine walking out on stage in complete silence can be an emotionally gripping moment.

Thematically, the core question this time is how far the characters are willing to go and how much they’re willing to overcome to achieve their dreams. Early on, when Nana finds Buster despondent over being told that he and his people aren’t good enough, she urges him on by asking “do you think you’re good enough?” A question that hangs over the characters throughout the film as this group of local performers try to prove they have what it takes to go pro in the face of skepticism or downright hostility. They may or may not be good enough, but that’s less important that the question of whether they believe they are good enough. Because only if they’re convinced of what they have to offer will they be able to overcome the challenges on the way to their goals.

One of these challenges are the people who control the access to the audience; people like Crystal and his company. The gatekeepers, if you will, who often, as in this case, don’t actually care about the art or about putting out a good product, but only on how that product will reflect upon them. In such cases, the film suggests, you can find ways around them…but then, you only do that if you believe in what you have to offer. Because ultimately, it’s down to the audience. Buster and his troupe know that they can perform and win over audiences: not only are their shows sold out at home, but on their journey to the city the manage to enthrall the whole bus merely by their rehearsal. They know the show will be great…if they can only get it together and get people to see it.

But getting the show together will require each of them to rise to the occasion, overcome their own challenges, and truly do or die. The stakes are higher and they all have to dig deeper to come through, leading to a climax that is just as satisfying as the first film’s.

And in the end, as Buster tells Crystal, the only thing that counts is whether they put out a great product, because that is what they set out to do. He can try to prevent their doing so, but once they’ve done it, there is nothing he can do to change it.

Then, of course, on the other side is Calloway, a legendary rock star who lost all desire to perform after his wife died. Whereas the others have to find a way to trust in their abilities, he has to find his inspiration and love for the art form again.

U2 lead man Bono gives a startlingly good performance in the role, by the way, not only lending it the weight of his legitimate rock-star status, but also projecting some truly powerful emotion into the character, particularly in a late scene where he suffers a full breakdown when faced with the stage. He and Scarlett Johansson (who shares most of his scenes) together provide some really first-rate voice acting.

Once again, everyone is really good in their roles, with Matthew McConaughey again carrying most of the film with his mad-cap enthusiasm (and he also projects rather startlingly convincing terror when Crystal tries to murder him). Once again, the celebrity voice cast blends in pretty well without being distracting, and I was particularly glad for the addition of Laetitia Wright as Mooshy, since I really like her as an actress and I want her to be in more good films (not just be the best thing in bad ones). Singer Halsey likewise does a good job as Porsha, letting the character be ditzy and annoying, but then selling her genuine side when it comes out.

So, what’s not so good about the film?

Well, in the first place, some of the character choices are highly questionable. Like, would Crystal really try to flat-out murder Buster under those circumstances? Granted he’s connected and powerful, and projects a definite mobster image, so we can assume this isn’t the first time he’s resorted to this, but given that he could ruin him by simply firing him it’s still questionable that he would take the risk (the real reason, of course, is to reinforce the question of just what Moon and his people are willing to face to get the job done).

Also, Buster once again makes some highly dubious creative decisions. When he has to recast Rosita, it’s as a gooey alien monster that gets defeated by the heroine. If he’s trying to compensate her for losing the lead, why would he do that? In fact, wouldn’t it have been more resonant if Rosita was supposed to sing some kind of cheery song while dealing with the loss of her dream? It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a missed opportunity that could have easily have been improved. Likewise, couldn’t he have cast someone less obnoxious for Meena’s partner? Though in that case he seems to have been working on reputation rather than knowledge and probably assumed someone experienced in romantic scenes would help her, so there is an out there. That they pull off the final show with so little prep time in key areas (e.g. the aye-ayes drafted into the chorus learn tap-dancing pretty quickly) does also rather strain disbelief.

For my part, I also found it kind of disappointing that, after being almost a central character in itself in the first film, the Moon Theater is almost completely forgotten after the opening act. Considering how important it was to Buster last time, it feels a little off that it doesn’t play any kind of role here (I was expecting the epilogue to feature them putting on the show there). Granted, the whole idea is that they’re moving beyond their provincial theater into the big leagues, but it still was a bit disappointing. Though your mileage will definitely vary on that.

You know, at the start of my review of Sing, I said I didn’t think it would ever be a favorite. But, after seeing and thinking over both films, I’d say that’s changed. These are both solidly excellent animated features with strong storytelling and engaging characters, and what is more, a real sense that everyone involved cared about what they were doing and, like the Moon Theater Troupe, were doing it as much for the love of the art as for anything else, and that’s a very rare thing to see. Both films come highly recommended.

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One thought on “Thoughts on ‘Sing 2’

  1. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 12: Emotional Continuity for Characters in Fiction | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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