“The day you stop acting is the day you start dying.”
What devastatingly handsome, witty, soulful, artistic genius uttered that sage piece of advice? Why, yours truly, of course! And holy shit, how pretentious can you get? Considering the context in which I spewed out this ridiculous string of words, you’d think I’d swallowed a handful of bath salts.
It was my senior year of high school and I’d been cast as Malcolm in a local production of Macbeth. The drama department was severely lacking in anything resembling quality, so I essentially outsourced myself and ended up having a grand old-time doing community theatre, which may as well have been Broadway to me. This particular theatre company was even semi-professional, flying in an Equity actor to play the title role. Along with a traditional run, we toured several high schools, performing slightly shortened versions of the show for students. Most of these performances went relatively well, but one was an absolute disaster.
Did the set fall down? Nope. Did an actor fail to show up or forget their lines? Negatory, good buddy. In fact we, the company, did fine. It was the student body that was the problem. They apparently were under the impression that this was free time, so they yakety-yakked from curtain up until curtain down. And I don’t mean there was a low, rude murmuring of voices. It’s important to project while on-stage, but we literally had to shout at the top of our lungs, so great was the noise level coming from the audience. It was unbelievably rude, but in retrospect, pretty funny. They wisely skipped doing the usual Q & A and a representative from the Drama Club apologized profusely, and with good reason. It was ridiculous what we’d just gone through. Total disrespect. Still, we soldiered on and afterwards held a very brief meet-and-greet for the few students who were actually interested in acting. That’s when I dropped the little bon mot piece of advice. A few of my fellow co-stars scoffed, but most were polite and I was clearly trying to be deep. Although my love for theatre has waned as that passion transferred to film, I still do enjoy a stage production or three. The absolute love and adoration for theatre is on full-display in Garth Jennings’ sweet but over-stuffed, animal-populated musical Sing (2016).
Writer/Director Garth Jennings, along with producing partner Nick Goldsmith, were best known for their music video productions, crediting themselves as the amusing Hammer & Tongs. In 2005, Jennings would take on a daunting task. Directing an adaptation of Douglas Adams’ beloved “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.” As a debut feature, this was quite the challenge, and ultimately, the gamble was neither an embarrassment nor a runaway hit. It fell somewhere in-between, but it was enough to enable him to make the fun and very personal Son of Rambow (2007). Almost ten years went by before Jennings would complete his next project, the aforementioned Sing; working for nearly four years at the Illumination MacGuff studio in Paris. Of course, this film has nothing to do with the 1989 Dean Pitchford-scripted Sing, which also happens to feature a rag-tag group of performers and also happens to be about a singing competition which parallels the closure of a major institution, but I guess there’s no reason to mention one of my sister’s personal favorite films, is there? I can say with absolute certainty that the new-millennium version of Sing clearly doesn’t lack for ambition.
With six stories in constant flux throughout the 108-minute runtime, it’s likely Jennings saw Sing as both a juggling act and an opportunity to throw many, many ingredients into the cinematic pot. In interviews, the director hasn’t stated specifically that the film was originally meant to be live-action, but this being his first animated feature and coming from a mostly live-action-based background, he clearly took a less cartoony approach to the material. Hooking up with Illumination co-founder Chris Meledandri, the film is jam-packed with wacky anthropomorphic animal characters, much like the studio’s previous efforts Hop (2011) and The Secret Life of Pets (2016), but it remains something of an outlier compared to the rest of the production company’s output. In films like the Despicable Me franchise and The Lorax, wackiness abounds and logic takes a backseat. Sing tries to have it both ways, presenting a world of talking animals who basically follow the laws of physics yet can also invent Rube Goldberg-style contraptions and escape from prison simply by doing what comes naturally. “Screw the honor system!”
It’s important to make the distinction between stereotypes and caricatures. While Jennings wants to give each of his characters some depth, he does it with a broad stroke style of writing. The actual plot points suspiciously smell of typical musical drama tropes and the characters themselves each represent an idea more so than literal flesh and blood individuals...or animals, as it were.
Representing the neglected housewife whose dreams were deferred due to family duties, we get Rosita, a pig voiced by Reese Witherspoon. Hers is possibly the most stereotypical story, but also one of the more depressing. With 25 piglets and an appreciative but work-absorbed husband, Rosita’s unrealized potential makes her journey from unsatisfied caregiver to vivacious performer very resonant. I’ll be honest, I’ve been disappointed by Reese Witherspoon’s work over the last couple of decades. Her early career choices displayed an uncanny ability to give diverse performances that could be volcanic and powerhouse (Freeway, Election), charming (Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama), or distressingly naïve (Cruel Intentions). She also appeared in a fair number of good films, period, like Pleasantville and American Psycho. Her Oscar win for Walk the Line in 2005 was the logical next step in a career that had been building toward the most sought-after acting prize in the industry. Again, being honest here, I’ve forgotten on numerous occasions that Reese Witherspoon is an Oscar winner. I’m assuming that’s because, with the exception of Mud (2012) and Wild (2014), none of her post-Oscar work has been particularly good. It wasn’t until the unexpected success of Big Little Lies and later The Morning Show that she finally came back full force as both an actress and a powerful producer. If only she hadn’t revealed her inner ugliness when she got pulled over by that traffic cop. Yeesh.
While her role is a fun one, I must stress that at the auditions, she’s picked by deluded theatre owner Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey, Oscar-winner - The Dallas Buyers Club) because her voice “shows promise” despite a lack of stage presence. I’m here to say that although every show and casting director is different, I’ve found that while most productions are certainly ready to work with talent, it’s unlikely someone will be cast when other applicants have more experience and will require less work. I was once told in a casting workshop that most casting agents want to be able to put an actor into a project the very next day, so “showing promise” doesn’t really guarantee a job.
The untapped talent trope continues with teen porcupine Ash, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She’s part of a punk duo with her narcissistic boyfriend Lance (Beck Bennett, SNL), who constantly berates and tries to stifle her obvious talent in favor of his own selfish need for the spotlight. Complacent at first, she’s able to find her own artistic voice and leave Lance, thanks in no small part to the sudden appearance of a trampy porcupine voiced by the prolific Tara Strong. If you’d asked me to pick which actress from Ghost World (2001) would become an A-list superstar, I’d’ve gone with Thora Birch. She’d been rising steadily through the ranks, appearing in a couple Jack Ryan movies, Hocus Pocus, Now and Then, and finally her real breakthrough, American Beauty. While Ghost World came out after the flop that was Dungeons & Dragons (2000), the successful Terry Zwigoff dark comedy would be her last significant role, despite continuing to work sporadically.
I’d written off Johansson after she appeared in Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). I figured, that’s it. Lost in Translation was a huge hit that same year, but it won’t last. She’d also been a minor child star, appearing in North, Just Cause, and the underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There, but Ghost World got her seriously noticed and that led to Sofia Coppola’s unexpected phenomenon. It was a little shaky for her and my prediction essentially was accurate for a number of years. Ignoring good films like The Prestige and her mixed bag projects with Woody Allen as his latest leading lady (Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona), she had a slew of box office disappointments as she experimented with sci-fi/action (The Island), noirish thrillers (The Black Dahlia), romantic comedy (The Nanny Diaries), and period drama (The Other Boleyn Girl). It wasn’t until she landed a supporting role in the less-than satisfying sequel Iron Man 2 (2010) that she suddenly pulled forward and left most of her competition behind. Thanks to her effective work as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in the MCU and a wildly eclectic workflow (the bonkers Lucy, Under the Skin, Don Jon, Marriage Story, in a role for which she should’ve won the Oscar, and Jojo Rabbit), she’s emerged as one of the most popular actresses of her generation. Of course, it’s not all wine and roses, as she’s courted a great deal of controversy: appearing in the white-washed Ghost in the Shell and the deeply disappointing Hail Caesar! and Hitchcock. She proves herself to be a surprisingly decent singer, although her need to use an ‘H’ sound before certain lyrical turns reveal that she obviously hasn’t perfected her vocal abilities. I know this because when I began taking voice lessons, this was one of the first things I was taught to do. A trick to using your breath is adding an ‘H’ sound to words like “I” and “at” so it will help with vocal control and performance. Listen to her rocking rendition of “Set it all Free” and you’ll hear her using this technique.
Pop and R&B Singer Tori Kelly ironically appears as an elephant with a huge amount of stage fright. It’s yet again a trope wherein a secretly talented singer is hampered by a lack of confidence. She’s a nice addition to the cast, but her role is relatively minor compared to the male performers, whose plot details are a bit more interesting. The Sinatra-esque Mike is a self-centered jerk mouse whose tough guy attitude is thankfully never changed nor apologized for. He merely learns to get along with others and comes to realize he’s not the center of the universe. He’s voiced by the mega-talented, if slightly spread-too-thin Seth MacFarlane. The creator of Family Guy and Ted, his lesser work like The Cleveland Show and A Million Ways to Die in the West are forgivable given his surprisingly strong work as an actor in films like Logan Lucky and his spectacular work as the definitive Santa Claus on Robot Chicken. His arc, which involves a group of mobbed-up Russian bears (who I wish wore little hats and drove in little cars, like at the ballet), at least has the most to do with the reason Buster’s theater is destroyed. The bears smash a treasure chest, which supposedly contains the one hundred-thousand-dollar grand prize for whoever wins the singing competition that the film revolves around. This event causes a chain reaction that leads to the destruction of the theater and Buster Moon being reduced to selling his body...as a car wash sponge.
McConaughey’s stunning comeback from the doldrums of the romantic comedy hellscape he found himself trapped in for years absolutely deserved the amusing label “The McConaissance.” Here, his natural positivity lends itself well to his beleaguered koala bear theater owner. His endless enthusiasm and willingness to beg and cut corners show a desperation that could border on sociopathic if his love for theatre weren’t so evident. Although I very much do not wish the movie were longer, what seems to be missing are scenes in which Moon actually comes up with his ideas. While tackily bringing his own lunch to a fancy restaurant with wealthy pal Eddie (a mostly wasted John C. Reilly), he states simply that his dying theater will be revitalized by a singing competition. How he comes up with this idea, we’re never told. Ditto his disastrous decision to fill his theater stage with water in order to create a light show using dayglo-style squid. It just happens. When he realizes that his loyal but doddering old assistant iguana Miss Crawly (voiced by Jennings) has accidentally printed the contest flyer as offering “$100,000” rather than “$1000,” he decides to go with it rather than fessing up. He’s basically playing tiddlywinks with the hopes and dreams of his contestants. He’s actually quite the scoundrel, despite his good points. Of course, he’s forgiven in the end thanks to his love of the theater, so this Illumination feature follows the Disney model, which of course means an entire plot is predicated on a lie.
While it’s deeply cliched, the story revolving around teen gorilla Johnny is at least fresh, if unoriginal. It’s a tale that can be connected to projects as varied as The Jazz Singer (both the groundbreaking and racist 1927 sound film and the execrable Neil Diamond/Richard Fleischer 1980 remake) and the unintentionally hilarious Varsity Blues “I don’t want yer life.” A wayward child refuses to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Buster briefly makes ends meet by resorting to the very profession his father worked at to help him buy his theater, but Johnny (Taron Egerton) has a trickier situation. His dad (Peter Serafinowicz, whose car Nick Frost always wanted to drive) is the leader of a team of bank robbers and he expects Johnny to join in the illegal goings-on. As always, Johnny harbors a secret desire to sing, but the gruff father-figure is dead-set against it, until he’s not. Johnny can’t balance rehearsal and being the gang’s getaway driver so he inadvertently gets his dad thrown in jail. Ultimately, the incarcerated papa sees his boy performing “I’m Still Standing” on television and breaks free from jail just to say how proud he is of him. It could all be sickeningly cute, and it is.
Still, this particular version of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin classic became instrumental in the casting of Egerton to play Sir Elton in the well-regarded biopic Rocketman. I didn’t believe Egerton had a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning an Oscar, but he clearly deserved the praise and Golden Globe Award he won for the role due to the simple fact that he did his own singing for the film. Unlike the horrible Bohemian Rhapsody, which was also partially directed by Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher after disgraced director Bryan Singer left/got fired off the project, the lead singer is at least doing some real performing. I love Mr. Robot, therefore I love Rami Malek, and it’s just as unfair to ask Malek to sing like Freddie Mercury as it is to expect Taron Egerton to sound like Elton John. He doesn’t, but while Malek walked away with an Oscar for a “meh” performance in a huge box office success and barely sang a note, Egerton worked his ass off and gives real flavor to his interpretation of the iconic singer.
The core cast is surrounded by fairly reliable supporting talent, including Jennifer Saunders as a grande dame of the theatre, Jennifer Hudson as her younger self, which is...interesting, and Nick Offerman as Rosita’s oblivious husband. But the MVP award must go to Nick Kroll as Gunter, an outrageous pig who becomes Rosita’s singing partner. Kroll utilizes a blissfully ridiculous Scandinavian accent and is basically there to throw funny lines out while the main cast handles the dramatic work. He’s a welcome respite from some of the gloomier performances. As the co-creator of both Oh, Hello! and Big Mouth, Kroll has a variety of voices in his arsenal which still sound very much like him, but he makes it work. He’s often called upon in situations like this to up the ante on the comedic possibilities of a scene. Most people don’t remember his role on the wildly ill-conceived Cavemen TV series based on the marginally-popular Geico ads. Say what you will about the show, but Kroll’s work there proves that he can still be funny within a very unfunny concept.
All of these stories converge for a big finale staged in the rubble of the demolished theatre. Of course, it’s all a group-effort and everyone gets their big moment to shine. Through Buster’s determination (and good fortune to have a wealthy connection), the theatre is rebuilt, better than before and all is well. Buster Moon is self-described as a “deluded, washed-up charlatan,” and that's absolutely right, but this movie makes it clear that if you put on blinders, ignore any semblance of decent societal behavior, you too can convince a rich, former star to invest heavily in your theater which you yourself drove into the ground by making poor decisions. It’s pretty amusing to think that even though it’s rebuilt, he’ll probably just plunge the venue straight back into bankruptcy. Sing 2 (2021) would later prove that he does not drive his new theatre out of business.
The directorial vision of Jennings is on full-display here as he uses dynamic camera moves, including long tracking shots, to bring an energetic verve to the proceedings. The audition montage is the absolute highlight of the film, with so many different songs (an expensive but worthwhile investment) being performed by various animals. For what it’s worth, the film did spectacular business, grossing over 600 million dollars, and it’s heartening that a film (which sadly must contain a stupid fart joke; it is Illumination, after all) with both heart and a brain in its head found a mass audience. My only problem is the length. At the time of this piece, it remains the longest Illumination feature.
This particular year saw the release of another anthropomorphic animal film, Zootopia, which triumphed at the Academy Awards while Sing wasn’t even nominated. While that Disney animated film confronted racism and ran the exact same length as Sing, it seems that voters were likely turned off by the unfocused plot that’s jam-packed with inconsequential events. Stiff competition abounded that year, with Zootopia squaring off against the incredible Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, and The Red Turtle. Perhaps in a weaker year, it might’ve been nominated.
When the credits roll, there’s still about 8 minutes left, so the film still clocks in at over 90 minutes. I took my daughter to see this film and we’d already finished our popcorn and treats by the time the cast was performing their first dress rehearsal. The theatre is destroyed and there’s still over half an hour left! By including so many characters, Jennings’ cup runneth over and he has to give screen time to each one of them, which adds up quickly. As an animated film, it’s much cleverer than most mass-appeal cartoons that aren’t Pixar-related, but the movie, while pleasant, can be a bit tiresome. Sweet, cute, and slightly moving, Sing works, but make sure you’re in a comfy chair.