'Sing 2' broke me

February 27, 2022

The other day, I took The Little One to see Sing 2 in a theater. They’d enjoyed the first Sing movie, and I’d found it inoffensive, so I figured it might be a treat to see this one on the big screen, with big speakers.

Instead, I came away feeling as if I'd just watched a deeply cynical bit of popular children’s entertainment. (Spoiler alert, I guess, if you’re intent on not knowing anything about Sing 2 going in.)

The basic plot of Sing 2 is that a bunch of the performers from the first movie, led by the indefatigable koala Buster Moon, bullshit their way to getting financial backing for a big-budget Vegas-style musical extravaganza — and they have three weeks to put it together. At first, the performers have some troubles meeting the demands of these parts — exacerbated by the lack of clarity on what, precisely, they're actually performing — but in the end, they rise to the occasion and everyone cheers them.

On one level, this is the same kind of empty “believe in yourself” pablum that fueled the first movie. The first Sing, despite its many flaws, is fundamentally grounded by the assertion that putting on a good show and making music for an audience are their own reward. Each of the performers had an impediment to performing, and Buster helped them work through it and get around to performing on stage simply for the joy of performing.

Sing 2, on the other hand, seems to suggest that wanting to achieve something is enough; hard work born of passion allows anyone to succeed.

In reality, we know that’s rarely true; desire and willingness to work often don’t mean anything if the initial talent isn’t there. Just ask all the 5-foot-9 guys who shot 100 baskets per day all through high school yet never played competitive basketball after senior year.

Worse, the movie’s setup does an excellent job of conveying that each of the main characters — Buster and the performers, Rosita, Gunther, Johnny, Ash, and Meena — are clearly in over their heads by showing the ultra-competence of the professionals hired to help them put on their Vegas-y show.

For example, the stage crew is on time and expects Buster to have everything ready for them to get to work right away, and when he isn’t ready, they bust their asses and put together a spectacular set anyway.

The backup dancers behind Johnny easily meet their choreographer’s demands, ostensibly because they’re pros who do this for a living, and everyone is exasperated with Johnny because he’s a novice being asked to perform at an elite level right away. It’s only through the ludicrous contrivance of a street-hustling dancer taking a day to build Johnny’s skills and confidence that Johnny is able to dance the lead part.

Rosita can’t do the stunts that Gunther and Buster have dreamed up, and her replacement, Porsha, happily does the stunts and also happens to have Halsey’s singing voice (a vast improvement on Reese Witherspoon’s singing). That Rosita is a better actor than Porsha gives Buster reason enough to switch back to giving Rosita the lead part, even though it probably would have been easier to just reduce the amount of “acting” for the part and let Porsha belt her way through the show.

Ash is supposedly a great guitarist and good singer, but she spends most of the prep time trying to convince the Bono-voiced lion Clay Calloway to come out of seclusion and make his big public comeback as part of their show. This bit of the story might have been the entire plot of an interesting two-hander, in which a young musician finds herself in her idol’s home, trying to convince him to return to performing for his adoring fans. But in this movie, there’s not enough plot, and it makes it seem as if Calloway decides to play a Vegas show because Ash appears to have been the first person to tell him that, actually, playing all his old songs for his fans will help him work through his grief over his dead wife.

Finally, Meena, played by Tori Kelly, was the one great singer in the first movie, and she remains the best talent in this group, but she’s hindered by her painful shyness and stage fright. Until the last possible moment, when she dissociates from the other actor in her scene, she’s simply unable to get through her performance, which calls for her to act in love.

All that’s to say, what I wish had happened was that they got to the Las Vegas stand-in city, bullshit their way into producing a show, tried to rise to the occasion, but realized that most of them — Buster, Ash, Johnny, Gunther, and Rosita — just weren't talented enough to make this work. In that ultra-professional and super-competent environment, flying by the seat of your pants doesn't cut it. The movie should have embraced that Johnny couldn’t dance, Rosita and Gunther couldn’t pull off the acting, Ash wasn’t good enough at guitar, and none of them could sing as well as the established pros already on hand, who, correctly, saw these guys as amateurs pretending they're on an acceptable level.

So, how do you resolve this? Make it so that each of them can coach well; they have a baseline of performing skill combined with empathy and the ability to observe and explain their insights that help them understand truly elite performers and empower those folks to be the best they can be. Johnny realizes the best thing he can do for the show is to believe the choreographer when he says a pro dancer should have the lead role, but perhaps Johnny can still contribute ideas about blocking and showing the emotion of the scene. Rosita gives Porsha the insight she needs to get better at acting. Ash gives up trying to be the lead guitarist with the house band, and instead throws herself into learning all the parts on all the instruments, which comes in handy when the bassist breaks her hand the morning of the show. Make it so Meena really can hang as a singer, but she's got to work at it. Finally, the head stage tech could chew out Buster for putting so many other people's jobs at risk by bullshitting, so Buster realizes he's out of his depth as producer and director, and thus delegates to Ms. Crawley and others who are simply better than he is at those tasks, but he throws himself into marketing, because that's his elite talent.

That would have been a much more interesting movie, using the same broad setup. And you wouldn’t have had to pay Bono.

But more important, that kind of movie would have been more honest about how the world works and confronted the challenges young people will face in their lives. No one seriously insists that a movie like Encanto is “true-to-life” on every level, but I believe the primary reason it is a successful movie is because the plot turns arise from emotional turns that feel both organic and relatable — and also several of the songs are legit bangers. That encompasses both how each scene transitions to the next one and calls back to previous scenes, and how the issues each character deals with have stakes with which the audience can identify.

No Illumination movie does this. The Secret Life of Pets probably comes closest, but even that movie fails to follow the “because X happened, therefore Y happened” rule of storytelling and instead has multiple scenes strung together that don’t have fully-established causality; they are of the “and then W happened, and then X happened, and then Y happened” variety. As with Despicable Me, there’s a nod to the notion of wanting to love and be loved, but there’s no challenge to it the way the audience is challenged to understand how Maribel feels about her abuela, or, in Inside Out, what Joy comes to understand about Sadness, or, to pick a non-Disney movie, how the title character wins over everyone else in Babe.

It’s not that Sing 2 is an abomination. It’s fine as far as these things go. I know from trying, myself, just how hard it is to write an entertaining story that also nourishes its audience instead of simply providing a temporary distraction. However, I wish more children’s entertainment took a vital lesson from successful media as varied as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, “Bluey”, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, and the most popular Disney animated features of the past three decades and produced entertainment that addresses children’s concerns with authentic consideration.

Instead, we get movies like Sing and Sing 2, in which we’re presented a world of talking animals who wear clothes like people and live in built-up cities, yet there’s no reason whatsoever why the characters in this world ought to be animals for storytelling purposes. It’s lazy and it’s unimaginative. Just the combination we want to teach children is entertaining.

(Photo: “koala” by Tanner Ford. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)