Sing 2 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Garth Jennings
Was anyone expecting the first Sing to be anything more than cloying and treacly? I mean it’s not like Illumination has a great track record for this kind of thing, especially with those toothless Seuss adaptations, but they somehow pulled it off with that movie which was sweet, sincere, and my favorite animated movie the year it came out! The moment that it was over though, I knew that a sequel was coming and that it was probably going to be a bad idea. The first one worked as its own story, so trying to fit another one on top of it seemed like typical sequel folly and an obvious attempt at a cash grab. Then again, it’s not like I was expecting anything out of the first one and it managed to surprise me, so why not the sequel as well? Can this movie capture the magic of the first film and give us the rare animated sequel that is just as satisfying as the first one, or should we just be glad that we got a good movie in the first place and write this one off as a mere victory lap from Illumination? Let’s find out!!
Following the events of the first film, the Moon Theater is back and better than ever! The all-star cast of Meena, Johnny, Rosita, and Gunter (Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Reese Witherspoon, and Nick Kroll) are living their dreams and selling out shows every night; all of which should make Buster (Matthew McConaughey) who owns the theater very happy, right? I mean that’s kind of the dream that they were all striving for in the first one! Well… no. Apparently, they all want to go to the Sing universe equivalent of Las Vegas and perform shows there; presumably next to furry versions of Blue Man Group and Carrot Top. After a talent scout (Chelsea Peretti) brushes them off, Buster drags his cast as well as Ash (Scarlett Johansson) to the big city to prove that scout wrong and appeal to the biggest producer in the city; Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Carnavale). Through some high-level schmoozing and a white lie here and there, he agrees to give them a shot; albeit it with quite a few strings attached. They have three weeks to throw together a lavish Broadway-style show from scratch, they have to include Crystal’s daughter Porsha (Halsey) in some way, and they need to find rock legend Clay Calloway (Bono) so he can be a part of the show. That last one, in particular, is going to be difficult as no one has seen or heard from him in fifteen years, but if Buster says he can get him, then by Jove, he’s gonna get him! Can the crew pull off yet another amazing show, even with the added pressures of a bigger production and an overbearing executive? What new challenges will our heroes face on their latest venture, and is this perhaps the end of the road for them? I mean it’s not like Buster has a habit of getting in over his head, right? Surely he knows what he’s doing!
I can’t say I’m surprised that this is a sizable step down from the first film, but it’s still no less disappointing to have to say it out loud. To its credit, the movie could have been far worse and it at least managed to recreate some of the magic of the original film by cherry-picking its most popular elements; so if that’s what you’re looking for, more songs and elaborate numbers with the cast of the first film, then you’re gonna get it here and you’ll probably leave the theater happy. Heck, I’m gonna tell you everything that’s wrong about this sequel, and even I left the theater elated after the amazing musical numbers at the end! The problem though is that the big numbers are not what made the first film so inspired. It’s what we remember most vividly for sure, but what made that film stand out as strongly as it did was the underlying story that got us to the cathartic ending, and this film has almost no coherent story to speak of. I sympathize with the challenge here as the first film had such a good ending that there was no need for a sequel, but if you’re gonna try and capture lightning in a bottle twice, you can’t be too surprised if people are disappointed that you couldn’t quite pull it off.
What worked about the first movie is that it understood the core appeal of its premise; the singing contest as a proxy for inspirational stories of people overcoming their struggles. To this end, the film was filled with likable characters with interesting arcs where the singing contest became integral to them overcoming. Johnny had to face his overbearing father and break his heart to be his own man, Meena had to overcome her anxiety so she can fight for what she wanted, and so on. That’s perhaps the biggest reason why the ending of the movie works as well as it does; even more so than the solid song choices and the fun animation. Here, they just don’t have enough ideas to hand out to everyone between the original cast and the new characters. Rosita, Meena, Ash; they all got their big life-changing moments in the last film so their struggles here feel comparably inconsequential. If they fail in making this show, then what are the consequences? They go back to their hometown and continue to thrive doing what they love; albeit for a slightly smaller audience? The whole movie seems to be of the mind that bigger is better, which is the approach a lot of sequels take, but when the core appeal of the first one was the character drama, you can’t exactly recapture that energy by scaling everything upwards. All you end up doing is making the cast feel smaller and less vital to the machinations of the plot as the spectacle takes everything over. A movie that focused entirely on a new cast of up-and-coming stars would have been more in line with the strengths of the original, but I guess you can’t sell a sequel without plastering a bunch of familiar faces on it.
What was also impressive about the first film was how tight the narrative and its structure ended up being. It made a point to interweave the storylines so that characters can have separate arcs while still influencing and pushing against each other. Here, everything feels like its own isolated little tale without a core story to wrap it around, and I think the biggest reason for this is the change of villain from Buster to Crystal. Buster in the first film was affable and optimistic, but he was not shy about dragging people into his half-baked schemes. We wanted him to succeed because it would mean all the other characters would succeed, but it was always clear that he was getting ahead of himself and that he would ultimately end up hurting people in his hubris. Here, it’s just a jerk producer with ludicrous ideas of effective management. He’s so over the top in his villainy that it not only makes for a boring and overly convenient antagonist, it makes it hard to get a feel on what the stakes are. Buster’s house of cards in the first film was carefully built and we saw each step that pushed things forward while also making it all more precarious. Here, we’re just hopping story to story until Crystal decides to act irrationally evil to push the plot along; giving the whole thing a constant feeling of stop and go. How far along are we? What roadblocks is the production suffering from? Are we in any way going to make the deadline? None of it ultimately matters because Crystal decides to throw all that out of the window on a whim in a way that completely undercuts what little drama there was. Looking at it from a kid’s perspective, I guess all of this is a bit too nit-picky as Crystal definitely is the antagonist and is easy enough for kids to boo, but the first film didn’t have a problem squaring the circle between nuance and broad fun while this one can only take the occasional stab at it when they aren’t letting the spectacle run the show.
Now despite all this complaining about how the movie drops the ball on the core elements that made the first movie work, it would be unfair to not point out that they do get plenty right in several places. First and foremost, the animation is vastly improved over the first one as it had a big problem with reusing character models to fill out the background of scenes. Here, the designs have a lot more personality to them and they put a lot of effort into adding nuances to facial movements to really sell the emotional highs and lows when needed. This is most prominent in the Calloway storyline which honestly seems to be the one the filmmakers were most keen on telling as it has so much more heart to it than anything else in the movie. They really captured how haunted this character is by the loss he suffered as well as the subsequent struggle of putting his life back together after being away for so long, and it definitely feels the most like something from the first film. Speaking of which, Johnny’s story here is not nearly as heartfelt as it was in the first one, but I really enjoyed the push and pull relationship between him and his dance coach; especially when he brings on another coach who can form a genuine connection with him and get him past his self-doubt. It sadly gets undercut with a pretty ridiculous conclusion, but it was one of the storylines I was most invested in. Porsha has the opposite problem in that her story leading up to the finale feels underwritten, but by the end, they give her character a lot of nuances and her song is easily the best of the big numbers at the end; probably because they got an actual pop star to do it instead of actors doing karaoke. As much as I was annoyed by the villain of the movie, that final moment between the two of them hits almost as hard as Johnny and his dad, so yeah, big points for that! It’s clear that the new characters are where the writers had the most inspiration, and the returning cast who got the most interactions with these characters, such as Johnny and Ash, are the ones that still manage to stand out. Perhaps the third one will run with that idea instead of giving us this half-measure.
The third act ends up being a perfect summary of this movie; both its strengths and its flaws. Where the first film ended with a scrappy DIY performance of no significant consequence (no prize money, not even a guaranteed audience), this one is all glitz, glamor, and improbably high budgets. There’s spectacle and fun to be had, but the sheer scale of the production robs it of way too much heart, and so it’s hard to feel much for these characters as they’ve already reached their goals in the last movie with this just feeling like extra credit. There are enough good elements in here, mostly with the new cast, that could have carried a movie just as engaging and memorable as the first one, but instead, they played it safe and didn’t go too far outside of their comfort zone. What effort they did put in here is probably enough for this to be a hit like the first one was, but I doubt it’ll have even half the shelf life of the original film. Where that movie told a story about a group of misfits fighting through personal hardships to live their dreams, this is working backwards from the big finale, and while I’ll certainly watch those clips on YouTube quite a few times, I don’t think I’ll be compelled to sit down and watch the whole movie like I still do with the first one. The third act is big enough that perhaps you’ll want to see it on the big screen with loud speakers, but frankly this is the kind of movie built for the simultaneous home release, and if they had done that it would have been a much easier recommendation. To go out to the theater and see it feels like too much of a hassle for how unmemorable much of this movie is, but the kids will certainly love it and there are enough moments of genuine heart to keep it from being unbearable. Now that they got the giant glamorous sequel out of the way, maybe they can scale things back down for the next one and give us a genuinely engrossing story. Also, throw in some Billy Joel songs for crying out loud! If Johnny doesn’t play Only The Good Die Young in the next one, it’ll only make the review that much saltier!