Since before well covers became popularized in its modern form, singing has been a way to carry on local history and traditions, carrying warnings or lessons that the listener will absorb and carry forward into the next generation. The minstrels of the day would conjure melodies that would capture our hearts and minds, creating a connection between the emotions of the moment with those of the story being told. Centuries later, we got the television show Glee, the film series Pitch Perfect, and bands like Pentatonix who take the songs we know and repurpose them in new and mostly exciting ways. What happens, intentionally or not, is the application of intertexuality so that we, the audience, apply how we feel about the new use. Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” for instance, might have a bone to pick with “Theatricality,” season one, episode 20 of Glee for the way it shifts the context of the songs into its own. Conversely, the final musical moment in Pitch Perfect (2012) doesn’t so much reappropriate an artist’s work to create a new meaning, but mixes several together to underscore previous emotional moments from the whole film. Then there came Illumination’s Sing (2016), a film which, for all-intents and purposes, is an absolutely cash-grab on the a cappella remix trend, delighted audiences for the way it used their connection to pop songs to carry forward the character arcs in satisfying ways. Not to leave any single success as a one-off, Sing 2 sees the return of fan-favorite characters placed in a new situation in a smart continuation of the first film. This time, though, there are more songs than before, each one intended to strike you where you live as you join the perpetual underdogs of the Moon Theater in their quest for musical glory.
Buster Moon and his theater troupe friends enjoy the success they’ve created for themselves since they put on that outdoor show at the end of Sing. Delighted with what they’ve accomplished but desiring more, the gang loads up and heads for Redshore City where they plan to audition for the head of Crystal Entertainment, Jimmy Crystal (voiced by Bobby Cannavale). Their performance doesn’t wow him, but when Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll) happens to mention reclusive rock legend Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono), Crystal is not only interested in putting on their show, he demands it. Suddenly, everything they’ve ever wanted is right at their fingertips, all it’ll take is finding Calloway. But with each passing day, Moon and the gang learn that working with Crystal is a walk on the razor’s edge and the wrong note can do more than end their dreams.
How we connect or come to something says, I think, a lot about how we feel about said thing. That journey not only informs what we think, but how we react, clinging to or repelling it, from that moment forward. In my case, I came to Sing because my eldest (then only) son could really only be rocked down to poppy, jaunty songs. If it wasn’t Walk The Moon or Twenty-One Pilots, it was whatever artists we could get a mix for. So when he heard “Faith” by Stevie Wonder featuring Ariana Grande, we knew we’d end up buying the song so he could hear it anytime he wanted. But once you listen to the songs, you gotta see the movie, which the roughly two-year-old did, and it joined in the heavy rotation in our house that included Moana (2016) and Zootopia (2016). Even now, with the sequel upon us, he loves the songs that were featured and, I’m fairly certain, are part of the reason my son (who hates anything new) has begun expanding his musical tastes into more of what his mother and I listen to thanks to the introduction of songs from Sing. With this in mind, imagine my delight when the first song to be performed in Sing 2 is Prince’s “Get Crazy,” a track he only recently began to pay attention to and has asked to have repeated during car rides. The rest of the soundtrack is a mixture of tunes new and old with versions from the original artists (Elton John and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), as well as the expected covers (“Where the Streets Have No Name” sung by co-stars Tori Kelly and Taron Egerton). Considering the number of songs I didn’t recognize versus did, this seems intentional to cater to all the demographics in attendance: parents, old fans having grown, and new ones first meeting these characters. In that vein, the songs of Sing 2 are far more varied and a bit more modern than the first outing, though this may have more to do with the lack of Seth MacFarlene’s Frank Sinatra-esque Mike. Interestingly, one look at the soundtrack reveals that there are more songs (21 versus 16) this time around and that’s because the songs in Sing 2 are frequently used to underscore character beats, not just used as performances. (Think Reese Witherspoon’s Rosita’s “Bamboleo” sequence.) Personally, with the characters and narrative so deeply rooted in their love for music and performance, using the songs in this way made a great deal of sense. Like the ways in which I put on music to write, walk, drive, cook, clean, etc. Music is such a natural extension of who people are that incorporating this aspect into showing the characters combat trial after trial is a lovely touch (when considered without the obvious capitalist benefit of showing off artists to potential new fans).
As far as the narrative is concerned, I applaud returning director/writer Gareth Jennings for not leaning too far into what people loved about the first and pushing the characters into something new. There is a delightful mash-up sequence, but the overall tone is different. This serves to give the audience that quick and silly montage of animal performers (none will top the snail singing Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind” that always makes my step-mom giggle) that’s so amusing, while also highlighting the difference between Buster and Crystal. One believes in everyone, giving them a fair shake to perform their songs (which we only see part of) versus Crystal who stops the performance at the first sign of displeasure or disdain. Crystal’s in it for the glory and wealth versus the love of art. Buster, for all his faults, never wanted to dismiss any of the contestants in Sing, but he just selected the ones that best worked together or whose talent shown through. Selected or not, he respected each performer enough to hear them out entirely. Similarly, it would be easy to try to move the other characters down a peg in an effort to bring them together or create a challenge. Instead, the move to Redshore is about pursuing their dream of musical stardom beyond their local theater. It’s a shared goal and one in which they each support each other to do. Yep, gone is the voice of negativity from Mike. It’s all positivity, full-steam ahead. There’re plenty of challenges that come from the attempt of making your dreams happen and Jennings clearly understands how to utilize his characters to bring out the best in each of them.
Where the film stumbles is in the Calloway storyline. So much of the film is centered on a new character that the audience is supposed to feel something for. He’s mythical, he’s amazing, and he’s lived a solitary lifestyle away from the stage because of a terrible loss. I’m not downplaying the narrative explanation for why Calloway stopped playing music, it’s just that the film wants us to want him to return just as much as the characters do and we don’t. We have zero investment in him and the film has so many characters to balance (especially with several new ones as they relate to the characters arcs of the old), that everything with Calloway feels rushed. So much so that when his character, the only one who can offer the advice that pushes Buster and company toward the finale, does offer said sage advice, within the context of the moment in the movie, it’s incredibly irresponsible. The characters disagree with my reaction, but that’s because they see Calloway as this rock legend whose pain has locked him away, versus someone we, the audience have just met. From the audience’s perspective, we’ve basically just met this guy.
**What follows includes a spoiler that serves as a warning for parents with sensitive or young viewers.**
Seeing as this is a family flick rated PG, I think it’s worth noting that, like any sequel, aspects of the first film are amplified in the sequel. Where Sing had the bears seeking out Mike, a persistent threat that brilliantly serves to create the reveal of Buster’s secret, Sing 2 contains a constant threat via Crystal who, on several occasions, threatens the life of Buster. There’s actually a direct application of this threat that might scare younger viewers unaware that everything works out in the net positive by the end. So if your kids had trouble with the bears trying to eat Mike, Crystal attempts to utilize the strength of gravity to end Buster. The film makes no attempt to hide Crystal’s true nature, so this isn’t an issue of bait-and-switch, but it’s something that was certainly unexpected given the otherwise genial nature of the film.
**End of spoilers.**
Between the two films, as much as I enjoy the songs of the first, Sing 2 is the one I’d put on over the other. I like the confidence of the characters, the journey is fun, and the songs are great. Not to mention that the Jennings-voiced Miss Crawly has two fantastic moments to shine (and we enjoy Miss Crawly in this house). With all the films coming out during the holidays, Sing 2 is one you can enjoy with the whole family knowing that everything will be ok in the end, which is the kind of comfort we can all use more of these days. Not to mention that then, once enjoyed, you can put on the soundtrack (or your own mix) and put on your own little show. You know that Buster would approve.
In theaters December 22nd, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Sing 2 website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.