In the second season premiere of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon returns from hiatus to discover that her boss, Jack Donaghy, has created something called “SeinfeldVision” for the TV network.
“Well, l realized that NBC owns hundreds of hours of footage of Seinfeld from his massively successful television series, Seinfeld,” Jack tells Liz. “So my old tech guys were able to digitally capture Seinfeld, and now we can basically make him do or say whatever we want. So for the month of October, all of our primetime shows will feature a computerized guest appearance from Mr. Jerry…”
“Seinfeld,” Liz supplies, with a look of some horror on her face.
It’s a logical and obvious business move for Jack, consummate TV executive and “creator” of shows like MILF Island and America’s Next Top Pirate — “creator,” in the way that putting prepackaged margarita mix and ice in a blender and hitting the button is being a mixologist. Jack’s genius lies in assessing the desires of the broadest possible audience segment — nostalgic Seinfeld fans, or audiences who want to watch attractive middle-aged women battle on a desert island–themed reality show — and digging in the NBC archives to locate what can be mixed together, microwaved, and served up for maximum advertiser dollars and profit margins.
Which is all a way of suggesting that Sing was almost certainly invented by Jack Donaghy.
The plot of Sing is a familiar one, but with animals
Sing (which has an admirably literal-minded title) is a mashup of the concept behind roughly 50 percent of animated children’s movies — what if our world, but with animals? — and a singing contest in the vein of The Voice, which is owned, as is this film, by Universal Pictures. Throughout the film, various animals sing many songs in all kinds of styles — all of which, you guessed it, are owned by Universal Music Group.
There is a story in the movie, which bears a halfhearted resemblance to that most venerated of plots: The owner of the local theater, struggling to keep the lights on with the bank breathing down his neck, makes a last-ditch effort to save the theater by staging a spectacular show. In this case, the owner is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), who has been in love with the stage since he was just a baby koala bouncing on his daddy’s knee up in the mezzanine.
But theater is an expensive business, and Buster Moon is way over his head in debt. So he concocts a plan to hold a singing contest (everyone loves singing contests, he reasons, not inaccurately) and sends out fliers about an audition. But by a slip of the keyboard, those fliers promise a much higher prize than he can actually offer.
The fliers make their way into the hands of many wistful would-be singers, including a young gorilla named Johnny (Taron Egerton), whose dad is a petty criminal, a punk-rock porcupine duo named Ash and Lance (Scarlett Johansson and Beck Bennett), a crabby mouse named Mike who can sing like Sinatra (Seth MacFarlane), a harried housewife pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), and a shy elephant named Meena (Tori Kelly). Buster assigns them all songs to learn for the show and sets about drumming up an audience. They sing. They dance. They practice. They get into mishaps backstage and at home, where some family members just don’t understand.
But there’s no business like show business when it comes to everything going wrong — and everything goes wrong. And so the fate of the theater hangs in the balance.
Sing is relentlessly cute, and totally lacking in surprises
Sing is the sort of movie for which the almost universal adjective uttered upon leaving the theater will be “cute!” And it is, actually. There are plenty of cute moments. It is relentlessly cute. It doesn’t want you to forget that it’s cute for one single second. Sing is less a movie and more a relentless slapstick-y and occasionally sentimental music video aimed at kids, who will beg to watch it on loop until parents beg for a return to Frozen. (I’m sure there will also, inevitably, be a karaoke version.)
Feeling depressed about a cute movie like Sing seems like the Scroogiest possible move, so I will muster the fortitude to name some things to like about it. The music — being from Universal’s wide-ranging back catalog — is generally great, and if the soundtrack introduces kids to artists ranging from Leonard Cohen to Stevie Wonder, that’s a win. And there are a few heartwarming storylines packed in here, particularly the one belonging to Johnny, the gorilla whose dad comes to understand his son’s talent because of the competition. (Plus, a bit where our harried housewife Rosita concocts a Rube Goldberg–like device to get her massive brood awake, breakfasted, and out the door without noticing she’s left for the theater is pretty clever.)
But in its manic energy, Sing skips over all the possibilities its characters present, reducing them to a couple of quick sketches meant to explain everything about them. A long scene that builds on audiences’ love of audition episodes is also mildly infuriating, akin to someone changing the radio station every 10 seconds.
However, the biggest frustration about Sing is this: From the first few minutes of the movie, it’s clear exactly how it will end. There is not one moment of surprise. A few kids with costumes and a stage could dream up something much more fun.
2016 proved that children’s movies can be as creative as any other genre, and ought to be
Whatever I say isn’t going to change Sing’s ticket sales, which at this moment are slated to top the Christmas box office. And that’s not really the objective. If people go to Sing and don’t have a series of mini strokes from the nearly two-hour, heart-pumping cotton candy extravaganza, then that’s great. No harm, no foul.
But 2016 yielded a bumper crop of spectacular, innovative, entertaining animated films aimed at children. Some involved familiar characters and stories: Finding Dory, The Little Prince, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon. Some were more original and eye-popping: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, Zootopia. Styles of animation varied, and so did the stories and their use of (original) music.
What linked them all, though, was their commitment to telling stories in fresh, unusual ways, with surprises that could delight audience members and help them see the world (or just a familiar tale) in a new way. They proved that excellent, fun, delightful stories can be told in all kinds of styles, about all kinds of characters. Nobody has to jettison whimsy and creativity just because kids are watching.
Children are always being told to use their imaginations, make up stories, and be innovative. And of course, not every film has to be what naysayers might term “high art.” But the most toxic thing children’s films can do is teach them that at the movies, we should just settle for shiny things that move fast and make loud noises, or — worse — that having fun at the movies means turning off our brains.
Sing dearly wants its audience to switch off any critical capacity and nascent desire for something surprising and fun, and instead just marvel at its cuteness. It borrows on the genius of the songwriters whose music gets played throughout, but is too hastily constructed to try out anything of its own. As long as everything keeps moving fast, it hopes, we won’t notice.
But as so many animated movies this year proved, that’s wholly unnecessary. Kids are smart. They need great entertainment, movies that will spark their imagination and let them feel wonder, rather than short-circuiting them with flash. That’s worth asking for, and there’s plenty to choose from. Don’t fall for warmed-over rehashes. Don’t fall for Sing’s profit-maximization trap.
Sing opens in theaters on December 21.