It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that Illumination’s Sing 2, opening theatrically on Wednesday, is a glorified remake of the first film. When an original kid-friendly jukebox musical, featuring an all-star cast playing singing animals, earns $271 million domestic and $634 million alongside a Star Wars movie, you don’t pull a Chronicles of Riddick and go way outside the expected sandbox. And, yeah, Sing 2 again features a deluge of well-liked actors both new (Bono, Bobby Cannavale, Eric Andre, etc.) and old (Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Reese Witherspoon, etc.) once again besting the odds to put on the greatest show.
Speaking of, when an “original” live-action P.T. Barnum musical opens the very next Christmas and operates as an “I’m surprised they didn’t get sued” live-action remake of the first Sing to the toon of $174 million/$435 million, that’s also a good reason not to change the formula.
Taking place a couple of years after the first Sing, Buster Moon has maintained a small-scale theatrical show. But after the film’s opening Alice in Wonderland number fails to impress a talent scout (Chelsea Peretti), Buster refuses to take no for an answer and cons his way into Jimmy Crystal’s office. The literal wolf (Cannavale) eventually agrees to their pitch, a splashy sci-fi show featuring Clay Calloway (Bono), a legendary rock star who went into seclusion 15 years ago following the death of his wife.
Spoiler: They do not actually know Clay, even if they do know where he lives, which puts Buster in the hot seat with a show expected in three weeks. Can the gang pull things together, convince Clay to come out of retirement and put on a show? Well, I mean, this isn’t intended to be the grimdark second chapter of a trilogy, so… probably?
Like most of Illumination’s prior animated films, Sing 2 is a reasonably-budgeted (around $85 million), kid-friendly comedy nonetheless pitched to adults, or at least featuring adult protagonists dealing with adult problems. While the likes of Po and Hiccup deal with parental conflicts and societal expectations, Buster Moon just wants to do what he loves while paying the rent and Gru spends Despicable Me 2 dealing with the challenges of dating while being a single dad.
At their best, the Illumination films realized that DreamWorks’ Shrek series was as much about relatable conflicts concerning marriage and parenthood as they were about Disney/fairy-tale jokes. Granted, none of these adult conflicts are resolved in a terribly plausible fashion, but A) kids can relate to their lessons and B) it’s not Garth Jennings or Chris Meledandri’s fault that consumers stopped showing up for actual grown-up cinema.
First, the film remains another example of offering top-notch animation at a “might actually make our money back” price. The curtain raiser is such a visual and musical delight that it’s almost a surprise when the talent scout says “No, thank you.” The film does better integrate the musical numbers into the storyline, so you’re not just treading water until the third-act concert sequence.
Yes, it’s bemusing how Buster saves the day by outright committing crimes, and it’s downright miraculous how quickly Clay gets his artistic mojo back but, again, these are kids films which offer comparatively grounded emotional conflicts that happen to resolve themselves at the speed of a kid’s attention span. And yes, you may laugh when Clay rips into the big guitar solo in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” since The Edge, not Bono, was the guy who plays that part of the U2 toon.
The third act show is a mix of animated stage-bound outer-space fantasy and respective character-specific musical numbers during which everyone deals with their respective issues via song. And, yeah, there’s a reason this plot and this formula is oft-repeated, because it works even if you can clearly see the strings. The conflicts are refreshingly human-scale.
Rosita Brown (Witherspoon) just wants to conquer her fear of heights. Ash Spinosa (Johansson) just wants to get equal pay for equal rock-n-roll. Johnny (Egerton) needs to become as good of a dancer as he is a singer. Meena Jones (Tori Kelly) needs to cope with an unexpected crush. Oh, and yes Johnny’s father (Idris Elba) makes an appearance, in a cheerful cameo which reminds you that their relationship has improved because of the events of the first Sing. You know, like a good sequel that remembers it’s a sequel.
In a skewed way, Sing 2 is a pretty critic-proof movie. Yes, it’s a colorful and well-animated kid-friendly jukebox musical with funny animals voiced by celebrities singing recognizable songs. Yes, the adult conflicts are resolved in a kid-friendly fashion, and yes the song selection goes for awareness of what was popular a few years ago versus exposing kids to new music and yes the film breaks little narrative ground beyond just being a more disciplined and polished animated dramedy. But Sing 2 works exactly as advertised, succeeding at what Illumination does best while differentiating itself in scale and real-world sensibilities compared to Pixar’s existential dramas or DWA’s flights of fantasy.
It’s a little sad when a cartoon about singing animals is the closest thing many moviegoers will get to an adult melodrama this year, but well, that’s not Sing 2’s fault.