Some director’s careers are easier to wrap your head around than others. While it can be refreshing when a director refuses to be pigeon-holed into one genre and defies expectations by producing something completely unexpected, some filmmaker’s lists of credits are truly chaotic. Take British director Garth Jennings, for example. He’s directed some of the best music videos of all time, including Blur’s “Coffee & TV” and the Grammy-nominated “Lotus Flower” for Radiohead. He made an ambitious adaptation of the beloved “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the lovely ’80s-set indie comedy “Son of Rambow.”
Then in 2016, he unexpectedly made the hit animation “Sing” for Illumination (the studio behind “Despicable Me” and “The Secret Life of Pets”). In the inexplicable five year gap between “Sing” and its inevitable sequel, Jennings has only directed once — and that was a short horror film. The problem with leaving such a long gap between children’s movies is that the fans of the original film (y’know, kids) have grown too old by the time the sequel comes around. So, who exactly is the unimaginatively titled “Sing 2” actually for? It’s a question that will likely plague audiences as they endure this overstuffed, overly complicated, and bizarrely soundtracked followup.
First, some reminders: the first “Sing” ended with Buster Moon the koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) successfully rebuilding his theater. But, despite that great triumph, things haven’t been exactly sunny for our original crew, and the road to continued success doesn’t seem to be running too smoothly. “Sing 2” opens with a performance of “Alice in Wonderland” starring returning stars Meena the elephant (voiced by Tori Kelly) and her friends Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon) and Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton). And while a talent scout is in attendance, she soon leaves because the show — and its plucky stars — are simply not good enough.
After a pep talk from Nana (Jennifer Saunders), Buster decides not to take this rejection lying down, and suddenly the gang are off to Redshore City (a thinly veiled Las Vegas) in pursuit of mega-watt producer Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale) — a cross between Simon Cowell and Steve Wynn. Gunter the pig (Nick Kroll) comes up with a pitch for a sci-fi musical by the Moon crew, one that could star no less than Clay Calloway. It’s a big swing: Calloway is a legendary rockstar lion who has been a recluse since his wife died fifteen years ago. And he’s played by Bono. Crystal greenlights the musical, but only if Calloway can be persuaded out of retirement. Can Buster and his pals deliver?
While some modern music rounds out the film’s stacked soundtrack — including tracks by Billie Eilish, The Weeknd, Halsey, and Shawn Mendes — it feels like a mistake to hinge an animated children’s movie in the year 2021 around the collated works of Bono and U2. Even for fans of U2, Bono’s bewildering presence is more likely to prompt existential despair than feelings of warmth or nostalgia. While the voice cast — including Witherspoon, Egerton, and Scarlett Johansson — do a solid job with the songs, the covers are all auto-tuned, throwaway numbers. The continued “Glee”-ification of the music is simply more depressing than uplifting.
Characters learning to cope with anxiety seems to be a recent, and quite welcome trend in recent kid-centric programming (see: Chase in the recent “Paw Patrol” feature film) and “Sing” continues that. Johnny, Rosita, and Clay Calloway all struggle with panic attacks, and while the reasoning is muddy — perhaps more kids are struggling with anxiety due to the pandemic? — at least “Sing 2” attempts some grounded emotion in an otherwise awkward package.
Egerton’s Johnny was the best character in the first “Sing” and that trend continues here. As soon as you see that leather-jacketed gorilla sit down at the piano, you know you’re in good hands. But instead of focusing on his singing ability, his new plotline involves him learning to dance — first tutored by bully Klaus Kickenklober (Adam Buxton) and then by street-dancer Nooshy (Letitia Wright). “Sing 2” rarely seems interested in leaning on the elements that made the first film appealing, but at least Johnny still has his classic charm in hand (or paw).
Other character developments aren’t nearly as welcome. It’s disheartening that Rosita — a character who could be quite refreshing, due to the fact that she’s a mother pursuing a creative passion — is mishandled. She refers to her husband “baby-sitting” their children for 24 hours to allow her to go to Redshore City and the ridiculousness of her having twenty-five piglets (or however many it is) undermines what could have been an inspirational subplot, particular for girls.
“Sing 2” suffers from many of the same problems as the first film, including its overstuffed character lineup. New characters, such as Jimmy Crystal’s daughter Porsha (Halsey) and Meena’s love interest Alfonso (Pharrell Williams), will barely register. Crucially, the laughs are few and far between, with Miss Crawley (played by Jennings himself) still getting the lion’s (or iguana’s) share of good jokes.
At least the film’s animation style is actually quite impressive, with a real sense of scale and depth, particularly in the Crystal Theater scenes. However, the pacing is so frenetic that audiences will likely never have more than a millisecond to appreciate the textures or the visual spectacle of a shot before it’s already zipped ahead to the next sequence, always another song and dance to see, even if it’s woefully hard to actually enjoy.
Universal Pictures will release “Sing 2” in theaters on Wednesday, December 22.