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REVIEW – “Sing 2”: Illumination Sequel Patiently Goes All In on Grand Spectacle

2016 feels like a bit of a simpler time, doesn’t it? We were less worried about personal safety, and more on the trust we place in governmental authority. It was a time where big-screen musicals ran in sparsity, but when they did emerge, they went hard. We had La La Land casting a charming spell over audiences, and for the families there was Illumination’s Sing. For lack of better verbiage, it was cheesy, slightly generic, with what amounted to an endless Spotify playlist of pop hits and the occasional deviation among its A-lister cast. It was also somewhat entertaining, a slight guilty pleasure, aware of its missteps. The following it built doesn’t lie when they find a film to connect with, so the potential was inevitable for a follow-up. And to no surprise, Sing 2 responds by upping the stakes, landscape, and cycle of repeated motion. It’s a bit frustrating, but in typical Illumination fashion their team of creatives know how to smooth over any glaring faults, until they invade the field of vision.

Picking up at least two years after the events of its predecessor, Sing 2 places small-town theatrical producer Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) and his ragtag group of misfits under the microscope with a big hook for advancement. After failing to sway a talent scout (Chelsea Peretti) from the cutthroat playground of Redshore City, Moon plays the long-con to catch the attention of hotshot agent Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale). In his office, he pitches this big bad wolf, rather improvised, an abstract sci-fi musical. And in the face of fear, they blindly attach a popular performer none of them are connected with, feline rock star Clay Calloway (Bono).

From there on sets a chain of events, covering the development of the play over a rushed three-week stretch, along with searching for the reclusive Calloway, not seen in public over fifteen years following his wife’s passing. And credit is very much due to director Garth Jennings, once more finding clever nuggets out of the chaos that is “putting on a show” and building a creative epoch from the ground up. With the scale of the venue in mind, it is a near-impossible feat they accomplish, with multiple sitcom-esque side stories stacked atop one another. Similar in vein to the original, but perhaps denser with added avenues to travel. For a film kept to under two hours, there is simply a case of too many cooks (or characters) weighing the plot down with corners narrowly cut.

Plain and simple, there was so much Jennings could’ve done less of and nothing of worth would’ve been lost. And if it needed to be expanded on, then repurpose it for a small miniseries. Either way, the structure feels vulnerable during its first half. Elements like Cannavale’s otherwise fetching villain character, her wannabe superstar daughter Porsha (Halsey) itching to steal away a confirmed role from hard-working mom Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), or high note belter Meena (Tori Kelly) finding herself distracted by romance while playing coy with a vapid duet partner (Eric Andre), all could’ve been toned down. And perhaps traded for more on the story notes that seem to carry over well in development.

Buster does find new personal tension, just looking to continue his craft as a cuddly showman with large aspirations. A bigger city adds the same challenge, made to appear direr by comparison; McConaughey’s vocal resonance makes quick study of that internal ambition, working up to the occasion in a hurry. The koala’s on-screen command takes a slight backseat, however. To that of porcupine rocker Ash (Scarlett Johannsson), cautiously looking to smash the rock music patriarchy while tasked with searching for and schmoozing the gruff Calloway, her longtime musical idol. As well as piano impresario Johnny (Taron Egerton), nimbly resolving his faults with dance steps through the aid of street performer Nooshy (a delightful Letitia Wright). Not every subplot makes sense for that consistent theme of creative construction, some ideas are just downright annoying, and clearly distract from what does succeed best. Character development presents itself in these films like a hard eggshell that cannot be cracked without a certain level of follow-through. And there’s enough to keep things moving, but too much would disrupt the formula.

That much fuels a central point of frustration Jennings could not seem to prevent. But the entertainment value is far from impacted, due in part to clever writing and that supply of jukebox fodder. Anything to influence the younger generation that there’s always more to music, acts like Prince, Eminem, Coldplay, and especially U2 to discover, with the latter supplying their first original song in three years. A great soundtrack can broaden a cinephile’s shaping mind over time, and that is once more the case on this sequel.

All of this potent, albeit fragmented vibrancy comes to a head, on a headier scale than before, in the third act. What Jennings excels at is a huge showstopper moment, a trend going back to Hitchhiker’s Guide. Illumination’s marketing campaign couldn’t quite hide the eye-popping splendor of the sci-fi stage spectacle even if they wanted to. The entire sequence, a frenetic workout for Editor Gregory Perler (The Love Guru), did have me possessed throughout, highlighting all the toughness of a capable ensemble eager to prove their worth. My inner high school theater kid couldn’t help but smile so warmly at its authenticity, down to its cheesy finale of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. A fitting moment of closure for Bono’s guest character affirming his openness for animation; his chops were a welcome surprise, to say the least.

Yes, Jennings’ fondness for repeating similar motions does pose a concern. But if it works well enough, maybe a tiny shred of luminance can burst open. With character and plot dynamics relatively unaltered but unafraid to raise its game, and a zippy animation style as colorful as its cast, Sing 2 still left me with a mood well lifted. Even if done incrementally, it manages to move ahead the way any decent sequel can. While continually proving how easy it could be mistaken for a Cats Don’t Dance reincarnate. The major difference here amid its kid-friendly, cartoonish singing and dancing, is a deep emotional perception, vastly improved with Calloway’s backstory furthering that tonal resolve. Call it Illumination at its most empathic, a feat once seen as impossible, or defiant to real-world logistics. Now, I’m all for it. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Sing 2 plays theaters December 22; rated PG for some rude material and mild peril/violence; 112 minutes.