‘Sing’: I did my best, it wasn’t much
This movie had just the worst timing.
Is it fair to review a movie that came out half a year ago now, just because I was Making A Point about … something or other … when that half a year ago came and went? I don’t know, but if the review had come out then, it would have been a thumbs up. Now, this is a negative review, by the way.
Sing’s well out of the theaters and available to rent or own, and it’s nominated for an Ursa Major award. Maybe it’ll win it, for all we know. Everybody could have just gotten tired of the at this point assumed and basically all but destined winner; of course, 2016 was not a great year for presumed and basically all but destined winners. If you voted for Sing, however, I don’t blame you; it’s still okay. There is a difference between a pan and savaging, and, honestly, this barely rates pan. I used to like it, after all. Still kind of do. Just not as much anymore.
Part of the reason for this downturn in my affections is due to another movie; yes, there’s an elephant in the room we’re going to need to talk about, and I’m obviously not talking about the characters in the movie. Actually, there are a lot of elephants I’m planning on discussing, but set that aside right now because, when I rented Sing recently and rewatched it, I realized I liked Rock Dog better. So, there’s that.
Since this is such a late review, and is practically a retrospective at this point, I’m just going to drop the pretense and compare Sing and Zootopia. But first, there is one area these two movies are different, and while Zootopia puts its furry aspects title first, Sing’s title opts to put the spotlight on the fact that it has music.
The characters are taking part in a singing contest, which morphs into a non-competitive talent show late in the plot, and, given the fact I’ve had nearly six months to think about it, I realize this is an odd choice. A live show’s attraction is that it’s live; something could go wrong, and there’s not a backup. If something happens like Faye Dunaway announces the wrong Best Picture, then one of the presumed and basically all but destined winning musical’s producers has to rise to the occasion and announce the real winner.
There are ways around this in live action movies; continuous shots and extreme closeups to show, look, we didn’t edit this. Look at Anne Hathaway totally rocking this solo song in Les Miserable; now give her an Oscar. There may have been multiple takes, but this is just one of them; when it comes down to it, she did it basically live. But this is an animated movie; these singers are in a booth somewhere, which is the exact opposite of doing it live.
The truth of the matter is Sing is working up to a live performance of the main character’s songs, and it turns out the guy from Kingsman: The Secret Service really can sing, but he’s not doing it live; it’s still a studio performance. There’s only one song that really pops, and that’s the pig duo’s rendition of “Shake It Off”, and that’s because they dance to it.
Now, let’s get to Zootopia, which also ends on a “live” concert, true, but it’s not the climax of the movie; it’s a credits sequence. Or, how about another furry “live” performance, and one of my favorite film sequences of all time, the final circus performance in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted; here, this is an emotional climax to at least one character’s arc, but the scene embraces it’s artificiality and becomes an animation showcase. Both the Zootopia and Madagascar sequences are highly performative, like the pig’s dance; most of the singers in Sing just get up to the microphone and sing. Maybe play an instrument. They’re just a bit of a letdown, especially since they come after the dance number. They’re all well sung, but there’s little illusion they’re nailing this in one take. For all I know they are, but the truth is I don’t know; so, I cynically assume they didn’t.
Also, the only original song is performed by Ash (Scarlett Johannson), a porcupine, supposedly written by her, in a choice not to go with bubblegum pop like “Call Me Maybe”. Unfortunately, the song is not exceptionally memorable; “Try Everything” from Zootopia is a case of a song I like, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s because I like the movie it’s in more than any actual quality of the song. But it has the advantage of being the sole song sung in the movie (and featuring in, not one, but two stand out visual scenes); Ash may not like “Call Me Maybe”, but by mocking it, she only shows how freaky catchy that song is. Meanwhile, her own song is neither as catchy as a pop song, nor as spiky as the punk song her character would seem to want to write. As I’ve pointed out before, at least “Try Everything” hides some bitter lyrics behind the sweetness of the music; Ash’s song is also a bit bitter, but it’s ostensibly supposed to be a breakup song. It’s just not that angry.
But let’s talk some more about “Try Everything” for a minute; remember when it was announced that Shakira was singing a song for Zootopia? And it was called “Try Everything”? It felt like that could go a little bit dirty, didn’t it? Then it was a completely clean pop anthem without even a very danceable beat. And that’s where the pigs’ dance beats Zootopia; their performance is just a little naughty. Combine this with the fact that it comes from, well, a pair of pigs, it’s an astonishing choice. Tigers are nature’s backup dancers; put them in tight sparkly shorts, give them a few synchronized arm waves, and you’re off to the races.
But put a pig in a skintight, sparkly catsuit and have her do a shadowed strip tease, and you’re on your own. Suddenly, things feel live.
Hallelujah and the elephant
At a low ebb in the movie, a character sings “Hallelujah”, and for once, the movie’s timing went right, because, for a variety of tragic reasons, that song became the mournful dirge that played out the end of 2016 like some kind of twisted sitcom theme song. The character that sings this song is an elephant, because of course she is.
That’s part of the bad timing, too. Because, though I would have given it a thumbs up, it wasn’t a very enthusiastic thumbs up; I swear, this isn’t supposed to be a complete pan, but even then, it wouldn’t have been a rave, either. In hindsight, it just didn’t answer the times. It probably doesn’t seem fair to ask a children’s cartoon to have a response to Donald Trump, or, really, the million other little things of which he was only the poster child that conspired to make a song about a sad argument with God the final statement on the year.
Someone somewhere once told me they don’t pick their entertainments for their politics. Well, I do. If I’m going to take reviewing cartoon animals seriously, and treat them like a topic worthy of discussion, then I must hold them to a standard in which they themselves are worthy of discussing topics of importance. Someone somewhere once accused me of not understanding the feelings of an artist in having their work reviewed.
It never occurred to them that of course I do, because this, right here, what I’m doing now, is my art. And if it’s ludicrously unfair to expect a child’s cartoon movie to respond to the real world, how unfair is it to expect a review of a child’s cartoon movie to respond?
Well, life isn’t fair, and this is what I do; this is how I make my response, as inadequate as it is.
Sorry, Sing, you weren’t prepared for the world of 2016. Nobody was.
Oh, well. We’ll survive. Or we won’t.