I still have found what I'm singing for
It’s almost incomprehensible how much better Sing 2 is than Sing 1. It’s not that sequels have never improved upon their originals in the past. But I’m not sure I can pinpoint another example of a sequel being so much better while still telling almost exactly the same story as the original.
Sing 2 brings back all of the familiar faces from the first film minus Seth MacFarlane’s Frank Sinatra mouse, who I’m going to assume is canonically dead. And just like last time, the movie spends the bulk of its run time following Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) trying to keep a musical show afloat, with all of the performers simultaneously working through their performances and some light personal drama.
There are a few differences this time around. For one, the show they’re putting on is an ensemble musical rather than a competition with individual acts. And, this time, instead of taking place in a generic off-brand Zootopia city, it’s set in a Las Vegas riff called Redshore City. This is a step up because we get a lot more colors, neon lights, and glitzy interiors.
The other big twist this time around is the ongoing search for a reclusive lion rockstar named Clay Calloway, who is literally Bono. He is voiced by Bono, and the character is credited with writing real life U2 songs in Sing’s universe. We learn he wrote most of his songs for his wife who died fifteen years ago, causing Calloway to go into grieving isolation. This one strange detail — an alternate, in-universe origin story for real world songs — opens a massive worldbuilding can of worms. Do all songs from our world have alternate origins in Sing’s universe? Are there animal analogies to all great performers and songwriters? Did songs come out in the same order and chronology of their real-world songs? It’s not quite as perversely fascinating as the ontology of the Cars universe, but the more I think about Sing’s universe, the stranger it seems.
I don’t know what to say about Sing 2 as a film except that everything is just better this time around. The characters have actual arcs, whereas last time there was a narrative void where conflict and growth should have gone. And rather than a retread, each character gets something slightly new to do: Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) needs to overcome his two left paws and become a dancer. Meena (Tori Kelly), the shy elephant, is cast as a romantic lead, which she feels very uncomfortable about. And Ash (Scarlett Johansson) the porcupine is the main interface with Clay Calloway — a parallel that actually deepens the first movie, where she went through her own breakup.
On top of character arcs that are always functional (not at all a given in an Illumination film) and sometimes even engaging, the animation has gotten much more compelling. Adventurous, even. The glitzy Vegas skyscrapers in which much of the movie takes place have an almost expressionistic angularity to them, a fun departure from the bland urban realism of the original.
Even more fun is the depiction of the stage shows. These play out in colorful heightened reality. The opening scene is a lovably weird Alice in Wonderland adaptation scored to a David Bowie song. The sci-fi closer that takes up most of the third act really is a showstopper: the campy space designs and colors are a hoot, and the musical productions are overall quite good.
Against all odds, the movie is even a little bit touching. I genuinely choked up when Clay Calloway steps onto stage shortly after having a vision of his lost love, the sea of worshipping fans drowning him with healing cheers. Lovely U2 covers are sung by various members of the ensemble throughout the movie, but only by Bono in the stirring closer of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” a surprisingly bittersweet finale. Bono is a horrible voice actor apart from the singing, but it actually almost fits the character, who is supposed to be awkward and abrasive as a loner.
I don’t want to get too carried away. It’s a fun little movie, especially given my low expectations, but it’s nothing especially groundbreaking or memorable. It’s still mired by Illumination’s cheesy humor and cartoonishness. But the problematic elements are throttled down and the good stuff — the energy and sense of fun — is ratcheted way up. It’s more cohesive than any other Illumination picture I’ve seen, too. In all, I’d probably rank it as the studio’s best, edging out last year’s charming but episodic Minions sequel and 2012’s The Lorax.