Movie Curiosities: Passengers
January 2, 2017
Doomsday Reels: Resident Evil
January 8, 2017

Movie Curiosities: Sing

Yeah… yeah, this had to happen.

Much as I’d rather be catching up on the dozens of Oscar hopefuls still on my list, I simply couldn’t ignore this one. Too many of my correspondents wouldn’t let me. Everyone who’s seen this movie seems to like it, and the critical response has been pretty good. So now it’s time for me to say my piece about Sing.

This is the story of Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), who only barely keeps his theater running on hope and chicanery. After a string of flops, he’s facing bankruptcy, his theater is falling into disrepair, and none of his old patrons will loan him another cent. So he’s putting on a last-ditch effort at saving his theater: A singing competition with a $1,000 cash prize.

It’s bad enough that Buster barely has $1,000 to give away. Things get even worse when a typo on the flyer — courtesy of his old and inept secretary (Miss Crawly, voiced by director/co-writer Garth Jennings) — promises a prize of $100,000. But Buster being the scam artist that he is, he just decides to roll with it and dig himself even deeper in the hope that it’ll all work out somehow.

Then we have our cast of contestants. First up is Reese Witherspoon in the role of Rosita, a housewife who’s stuck taking care of a husband who barely seems to notice her and a bunch of kids she can’t manage. Likely because Rosita and her husband are stuck taking care of no less than twenty-five kids. Seriously.

Rosita has a wonderful voice, but she doesn’t have much in the way of flair or stage presence. By contrast, Gunter (Nick Kroll) has a terrible voice and his massive ego is demonstrated through garish displays of costuming and dancing. So the two of them are partnered together and hilarity ensues.

Next up is Johnny (Taron Egerton), who’s been pressured his whole life to join a bank-robbing gang led by his father (Peter Serafinowicz). Johnny goes behind his dad’s back to join the singing competition, which inevitably results in his dad’s gang getting caught.

Speaking of total jerks, there’s Mike (Seth McFarlane). He’s a classically trained musician with an ego more gigantic and fragile than the Louvre Pyramid. And even if Mike does have the pipes to back it up, he’s still an arrogant asshole who loves to put down everyone around him.

Then there’s Ash (Scarlett Johansson), who plays in a rock duo with her pitifully insecure boyfriend (Lance, voiced by Beck Bennett). He can’t sing and he can’t write songs, and he’s always putting her down so she won’t figure out that she’s got all the talent and you all know where this is going so we’ll just move on.

Last but not least is Neena (Tori Kelly), a girl with a flat-out incredible singing voice and petrifying stage fright. She completely chokes at her audition, but she’s able to fluke her way into joining the show as a stage hand. Thus she’s able to overcome her fear by proving herself competent in other ways and coming to love theatre from a new perspective. It’s definitely one of the better character arcs in the film, easily the most fleshed-out and nuanced while addressing standard cliches in ways that are at least somewhat novel.

(Full disclosure: I was a stage manager in high school.)

That aside, the film mostly juggles all of these characters by painting them in extremely broad strokes. Moreover, some character arcs have gaping holes in them, with plot-critical setups happening either offscreen entirely or dropping in completely out of nowhere. What makes it even worse is that characters like Buster (a pathological liar and a manipulative humbug), Johnny’s dad (an unrepentant criminal), and Mike (an arrogant asshole) all have arcs that depend on audience sympathy, even though we have every reason to root against them. The movie gives them bullshit redemptive arcs and relationships that are built on nothing — most notably Johnny with his dad and Buster with his rich young friend (Eddie, played by a miscast John C. Reilly) — just because the plot says so.

But let’s back up a bit. This is a movie that celebrates expression and encourages the audience to go out and take their shot at stardom and success. Through a singing competition. It’s an approach that might have been interesting and timely… if it had been released before “American Idol” went off the air. Eight months ago. After seventeen goddamn seasons.

Look, I know that reality shows and singing competitions are still a thing. A prominent example is “The Voice”, a show conveniently produced under the same corporate umbrella as this movie. But the heyday of reality TV is a very, VERY long time past and the pendulum has swung back to scripted television. So the basic premise of the film comes off as flimsy, passe, and (if you’ll pardon the phrase) tone-deaf.

But then the third-act twist happens.

I’m not going to spoil too much about what happens, except the broad “color-by-numbers” plot edict that this has to be the twist that completely unravels everything and puts the characters at their lowest. And I was genuinely shocked to see just how far this movie went in achieving that. Not only is this a plot twist that completely and totally destroys everything these characters were going for, and not only does it plausibly (however temporarily) put them in serious mortal peril, but it completely changes the “competition” angle of the story in a way that very pleasantly surprised me.

Moreover, it’s clearly established that some characters are in desperate need of the prize money. For one or two of the characters, it could literally mean life or death. Thus the competition does have something (not much, but something) in the way of palpable stakes. It means something when we see these characters go at this competition like they’ve got nothing left to lose, when they visibly improve themselves as performers, and when they inevitably learn there’s no prize money.

There are some genuinely effective moments in this film. Too bad all of that is buried in such a contrived, predictable plot, with too many characters who are way too broad for audience sympathy. And when the climax has virtually nothing of value to offer except animals singing song covers, that’s a huge disappointment.

…Oh, right. That’s the other thing about this movie: The cast is made entirely of anthropomorphic animals. Why is that? What does this add to the picture?

Take Cars, for example. I know it’s commonly seen as one of Pixar’s lesser movies and a transparent merchandising machine, and both because it’s a franchise populated entirely with cars. If you think of it as a world run and built entirely by cars without a single passenger or set of opposable thumbs in sight, yet otherwise somehow perfectly identical to our own world, it makes no lick of sense. But if you think of it as a story about enjoying life and counting blessings, centered around a race car who has to slow down, it makes a lot of sense. It’s a setting that brings a new perspective to the intended message, and in a way that defines the film.

But here we have a story about freedom of expression and competing for stardom, and it’s told with a cast of anthropomorphic animals. It would be one thing if they were acting like animals or living in an animal habitat (see: Rio or Happy Feet), but these are animals acting like humans in a world that otherwise perfectly resembles our own, singing pop hits we’ve all heard before (with a couple of exceptions, but we’ll get back to that). Yes, there are a few animal-related sight gags here and there, but the entire cast could otherwise be populated with human characters and nothing would be different.

Except that it would mean one less crucial element to distract from the predictable plot and the tired premise. But more importantly, it would make the film far less colorful. For all this movie’s many faults, the filmmakers really went all-out when it came to the visuals. From the very first swooping shot through a packed theater on opening night, the filmmakers made it abundantly clear that this was built for 3D from the ground up. There are so many neat visual touches, and the animation is positively brimming with character. The visuals are overflowing with energy and passion, and that goes a long way toward making the movie as fun as it is. Though of course it only goes so far.

While there are one or two legitimately funny jokes (my personal favorite involves the bucket for the leaky roof), the vast majority of comic relief falls flat. The animal sight gags offer nothing new. The “singing competition” jokes and the basic notion of cartoon animals singing pop song covers were both threadbare ages ago. Miss Crawly has a thoroughly useless running gag involving a glass eye. But then we have a J-pop band of foxes that could only be described as “weeaboo”. That whole unfunny and inconsequential running joke was a dreadful mistake in every conceivable way.

(Side note: I sadly can’t confirm whether the foxes had multiple tails, but I seriously doubt the filmmakers were that clever.)

Though at least this is the first Illumination Entertainment picture I’ve seen that was wholly absent of the Minions and anything that tried to rip them off, so there’s that.

But let’s get back to the songs themselves. While everyone in the cast is admittedly a wonderfully talented vocalist, the fact remains that they’re all singing the same tired tunes you’ve already heard a million times before. If you like the songs, you’ll like them here. But if (like me) you can’t stand the thought of another Billy Joel cover and Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” makes your skin crawl, this film will do nothing to make the experience more fresh.

But then we have the original songs, and kudos to the filmmakers for securing some serious talent for them. The big one is “Set it All Free“, written and sung by Scarlett Johannson’s rock chick. The song’s actual writer is Dave Bassett, who’s previously helped make hits with Walk Off The Earth, Fitz and the Tantrums, Elle King, and a bunch of other legitimately talented acts. My personal favorite is this bit of Grammy-winning awesome. However, on the scale of Bassett’s work, I’m sad to say that this one is a lot less “Ex’s & Oh’s” and a lot more “Fight Song”. Boring, bland, bubblegum pop; a toothless breakup song that can’t do anything more than pose.

The far better song is “Faith“, brought to us by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande. Wonder needs no introduction of course, and Grande is the rare ingenue pop star with the pipes to justify her success. But never could I possibly have suspected that the two of them would complement each other so beautifully, creating something that’s fresh and soulful. That one song has more energy and novelty than the rest of the cast put together, and its easily the only one that really made me want to get up and dance. So of course it never shows up until the end credits. Fucking stupid.

I’ve said for years that I would support a movie that aims for greatness and fails, rather than a film that aims for mediocrity and succeeds. Sing is a textbook example of a film that aims for mediocrity and succeeds. There are kids’ films that only aspire to be loud, flashy, and brainless; but this film aspires to be the loudest, flashiest, and most brainless of them all. The filmmakers put so much effort and passion into hitting every last predictable plot point in the most outlandish ways possible — plot holes and contrivances be damned — that it goes right back around to being somehow endearing. This is definitely a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and I can respect that. Plus, when anything has this much effort and passion put into it, there’s little chance the end result will be entirely without merit.

Even so, this is really only worth recommending as a harmless and forgettable way to pass a bit of time with any loved ones you have who are under the age of ten. And only if there’s nothing more interesting or challenging available. For anyone else, this is a rental at best.

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