SING 2 Celebrates the Art of the Spectacle…Eventually

The sequel finds familiar furry friends bogged down by an emotional second act

The jukebox musical is a strange beast. It has the formal structure of a musical in that it tells a story through enthusiastic bursts of expression, but then utilizes popular music, created outside the context of the story, for maximum nostalgia. Thus it functions as part story device, part cover band, part reminder of the thing you love. Jukebox musicals can be a bit of a ploy to invest the viewer with songs they already know and love, but when done effectively they can create thrilling entertainment.

Illumination’s animated Sing series uses this format with a less than subtle touch. Rather than picking any one particular band or even era of music, it pulls from a broad grab bag of popular music. Think Glee meets Zootopia. The second film in the series, with the admirably simple title of Sing 2, is slightly more focused, featuring three songs by U2, as well as a supporting vocal performance from Bono himself. But that also doesn’t keep the film from pulling songs from across the musical spectrum: Prince! Billie Eilish! Steve Winwood! The song pulls can come across as a bit random, but are ultimately all of a recognizable vibe.

The film follows more or less the events of the first film cleanly, with the koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey, who continues to deny us his iconic voice) running a live theater in his hometown that performs—what else—original jukebox musicals. But just like the first film, Buster dreams of bigger things and heads out to Redshore City, a clear analog for Las Vegas. Here, Buster swindles his way into an audition with music promoter and gangster Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, having a ball playing an evil wolf and not singing.)

All of this is set up for a series of plot vignettes where the various characters roam around Redshore. Rosita the mommy pig (Reese Witherspoon, sings) struggles with self-confidence when she gets subbed out for the promoters airhead daughter Porsha (Halsey, sings). Shy elephant actress Meena (Tori Kelly) has to overcome her fears of doing a romantic scene with egomaniac yak (Erik Andre, doesn’t sing). Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton, sings) struggles with his choreography before he befriends a streetdancing cat (Letitia Wright).

All of these stories get more or less equal screen time, and they are all equally plotty and equally drag throughout much of the middle of the film. This is not dissimilar to the structure of the first film, but Sing’s plots intersected and passed by each other in interesting ways and were much more emotionally grounded. This time around, it feels like the characters are dealing with inconveniences that stymie their progress for the show but are of much less personal interest or consequence. It’s just kind of workplace inconveniences, which are handled as such.

Buster’s plot, however, does have fairly significant stakes: The only way he can get the musical greenlit is to promise that famed lion singer-songwriter Clay Calloway (Bono, sings) will perform as part of the show. Only problem: Buster does not know Calloway, and the reclusive artist has been unseen since the death of his wife a decade and a half ago. So Buster and rocker porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson, sings with the most weight on her shoulders) have to convince Clay to come back for the show to go on and to prevent Buster from being murdered for lying to a gangster promoter.

This is where those U2 songs come in, as Clay Calloway’s catalog of songs sounds an awful lot like Bono’s own catalog. Thus the propulsive plot element is whether or not the group can convince Bono to sing Bono songs to save the life of the cute, wide-eyed koala. The bulk of the weight is on the shoulders of Bono and Johansson to bring that plot home, and while Johansson’s voicing here holds up to the first outing, Bono’s weird gravelly, pseudo-American accent never quite settles and mostly distracts; it certainly doesn’t carry the pathos when he muses over honoring his dead wife by performing again or living a life of seclusion. It’s an emotional beat that is just beyond Bono’s skills as a voice actor, and certainly beyond the ability of the film as a whole.

This lacking beat is a microcosm of the larger issues with Sing 2’s weaknesses when compared to its predecessor. While the previous installment told stories of lovable outsiders who had dreams of stardom, this film is mostly attempting to sell emotional stakes it never quite lands. Under this weight, the middle third of the film sags, leaving the viewer waiting for the show to eventually arrive.

Because if nothing else, both Sing films are loving odes to the spectacle, to being amazed by fearless performance and the thrill of perfect execution. This is where the films best use their medium, celebrating the ridiculous spectacle that animation allows. Director-screenwriter Garth Jennings understands that even in the fully controlled environment of animation, seeing these cute talking animals fly through the air, fulfilling their dreams and hitting the high note is viscerally entertaining. Sing is a series all about putting on a show, and when it settles into the actual performance, it finds itself clicking along, creating a crowd-pleasing extravaganza.

Which is why the drag in the middle act is so frustrating; when Sing 2 is cooking, it is breathless, poppy entertainment that leaves a broad grin on your face. If it could nail that emotional spine, it would buoy those high points even higher, but as is, it’s the vegetables you have to trudge through to get to the dessert at the end. But that end can still be quite a sugar rush.

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