To whatever extent Hollywood is one big arms race to build the best, most lucrative mousetrap, the money machine that is the fledgling Sing franchise demands some respect. There’s a cold corporate brilliance to the idea of fitting such ratings juggernauts as American Idol and The Voice to the mold of a kiddie time-killer. Writers can whip up inspiring backstories for the animal contestants from scratch instead of editing together reality, and the studio parentage of animation house Illumination gives them free rein to raid the colossal Universal Music Group catalogue. That level of access blows open the door to the musical equivalent of a cinematic universe more cohesive than most IP mash-ups, with an unyielding soundtrack that corrals Elton John, Eminem, Whitney Houston, and Billie Eilish into one bouncy playlist. (Only a select handful of songs, including “Girl On Fire” by Alicia Keys and a remix of Cardi B’s “I Like It,” have been licensed from competing conglomerates.)
The buoyant let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm coursing through Garth Jennings’ sequel to his 2016 blockbuster Sing takes some of the cynical edge off a film that often seems like it began as a boardroom presentation. But if the acoustics sound off, that’s because his jukebox musical is still hollow inside. The ensemble’s individual plot threads all lead to the same pat life lesson about being being true to and/or believing in yourself. In between the many high-gloss production numbers and a couple commendable bits of physical comedy putting the previous installment to shame, there’s a lot of treacle delivered with minimal conviction. Our menagerie of belters zip from one juncture of their arcs to the next as if on a conveyor belt. They only seem earnest when there’s a microphone in their respective hands, paws, or claws.
In the first film, koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) threw together a singing contest to save his struggling theater. The follow-up raises the stakes by sending him and his stable of furry, scaly talent to the big time. In the Vegas-ish showbiz hub of Redshore City, they sneak into an audition with lupine kingmaker Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, his sandpaper voice well-suited to the role), cueing up another one of the rapid-fire tryout sequences that also allowed the first film to burn through song cues and sight gags. This time around, fewer bits aim for hipness and trigger a reflexive full-body wince, though the dabbing elephant is difficult to move past.
Moon and his merry band book the gig, but only by promising the comeback of Clay Calloway (Bono), the reclusive lion rock star who hasn’t been seen since losing his wife 15 years earlier. Convincing him to emerge from his depressive retirement keeps Buster occupied while his one-dimensional stars split up for trite little conflicts of their own. Street-smart ape Johnny (Taron Egerton) can’t get the hang of ballet, and finds his footing with the help of a breakdancing lynx (Letitia Wright). Pig chanteuse Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) must conquer her fear of heights before she’s upstaged by Crystal’s bratty daughter (Halsey). Timid elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) has to play a love scene opposite narcissistic yak Darius (Eric André) while pining for crush Alfonso (Pharrell Williams), the ice cream vendor who calls her “goddess.” All three sub-stories converge on the useless moral that it is good to be confident.
Sing 2 benefits from the subterranean bar set by its predecessor, but it’s damningly faint praise to note that the net total of unpleasantness has somewhat decreased, mostly in that we’re no longer subjected to Seth MacFarlane’s Sinatra-voiced mouse. The requisite nattering cutesy critters inescapable in a post-Minions movie landscape—the first film’s helium-voiced J-pop red pandas known as the Q-Teez—have been mercifully set aside. Adults may find some moderate amusement in hearing Chelsea Peretti say, “Officers, arrest that wolf!” Though that could be tempered by the sad whiff of self-aggrandizement in Bono voicing a character treated like the greatest musical mind of all time, a reputation the character earned by writing the songs of U2.
Calloway’s scenes draw the most attention to the disharmony between the film’s stated emphasis on creative integrity and its barely concealed imperative to generate profit. The computer-assisted vocal tracks have been buffed to a streakless perfectionist sheen without any spirit or spontaneity to make the songs come alive, a falseness part and parcel with the overall inauthenticity about artistic purity. In this animalian world, there’s nothing more sacred than music. If only Jennings’ off-key karaoke party had that same reverence for its selections, or a fraction of the soul that was required to make them.