I would be a little alarmed at the number of adults at a 10:15 am screening of what is basically a kids movie, except for the fact that the three of us who went to see it were also all adults. “Sing” delivers pretty much what it promises in all the promotional material. This is a film cobbled together around the premise of animals singing in an “Idol/Voice/X-Factor” style competition. If you like those sorts of reality competition shows, than this is likely to please you. If you just like anthropomorphized animals in cartoon form, while this should satisfy you as well.
Buster Moon is a koala bear who falls in love with the theater as a kid. Every choir singer, high school actor, or member of the glee club can identify with that. If you did dramatic interp on the speech team, worked as a stage hand on a high school play production, or you were an aspiring rock singer with a group of your friends forming a band, you have the bug. It is an infection that makes live performance so much fun and invigorating that you can get over your self consciousness and be willing to stand in front of an audience and potentially look foolish, just on the off chance that someone else might enjoy it. “Sing” is all about that idea. While there is a little bit of that “can do” theme in the film and story, most of what makes up the movie is a cartoon version of performance.
I’ve got nothing against cartoons at all. I love animated movies and Bugs and Daffy filled my childhood with beloved memories. I never really looked to cartoons to give me life lessons. So the thinness of the theme in this film does not really bother me because it is really just there to help make the running time worthwhile. The story is very episodic with Buster as a Brooks-like producer trying to put together the successful show that has eluded him. His plot-line involve financial shenanigans and theatrical mishaps. Rosita is a pig mama to bacon factory of piglets, she also longs to sing. Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon reunite from the film “Mud” to voice Buster and Rosita. Rosita and her family have all the Rube Goldberg devices from a Road Runner cartoon in their segments of the story. There is also a plot about gamblers after a cheating card player and a shy talent who is literally the elephant in the room. Kids will laugh at the fart jokes and adults will enjoy sampling the wide range of music performances in the film.
This movie comes from the same studio that brought us “Despicable Me” and it’s sequel, as well as the “Minions” movie. I thought last year’s “Minions” was mostly an excuse to string together pop hits and fill the movie with something more interesting than the story. “Sing” solves that problem by making all the pop hits be the story and therefore freeing us the obligation to shoehorn all the songs into the movie. I don’t know that the personalities of the characters matter that much. So many voice actors get used just for atmosphere and not for any other reason. The singers are all fine but no performance stood out in a way that would make it a signature moment in the film.
The movie is lite and entertaining enough for the holiday season. Kids home for the Christmas Vacation will be able to see this with parents who will not hate watching the “let’s put on a show” attitude of the characters. No one is going to have this on their list of greatest animated movies ever, but it combines the animal world of a film like “Zootopia” with singing performances that are entertaining enough for the short time that each one of them runs.
Forty years ago, as a young man, I hiked many sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. In my scout troop we had a guy who backpacked the entire length of the trail but he did not do it in one fell swoop like Cheryl Strayed did. The accomplishment of such a monumental feat by someone not trained, experienced or wise in the ways of the wilderness is pretty impressive and at the same time completely foolish. Walking into the wild by yourself is an invitation to self reflection, a strong communing with nature and disaster. Watching the event take place for two hours in a comfortable theater at a ripe older age made me nostalgic until the first snowfall encountered.
This is a highly personal story that will strongly appeal to the navel gazers among the cinema going population. It will serve as a travelogue for those who have never been from the depths of the Mojave to the heights of the Sierras and it will depress anyone who has lost a loved one. It will also confuse those of us who lack the personal tragedy gene that would drive someone to wreck their life when a loved one passes unexpectedly. I cannot sit in judgement of a person’s emotional life, everyone is different in the way they cope, but this film left me empty at the experience that drove Cheryl to attempt this trip. I certainly appreciated the flashbacks that accentuated her relationship with her mother, but I was bewildered at how the level headed, bright young woman that she was when her mother is lost, became the bitter, drug addicted victim of serialized promiscuity, forsaking a man that seemed to truly love her. That it happened and that there was a reason for it I do not doubt, I just don’t understand any better as a result of watching this movie.
The story unfolds as Cheryl hikes the 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest trail and thinks back on the life that had brought her to this point. The flashbacks give us detail in the way she grew up and the warm relationship she had with her mother, but they do not clarify the path that lead her to the self destructive behavior in the first place and there is not a very clear reason why she choose this task as a way of closure and repentance. Maybe there is a moment of clarity or an epiphany that brings this sad Minnesota girl to the West Coast and the Sierra Nevada range of mountains, but without a context it felt like an arbitrary odyssey to set out on. Reese Witherspoon is effective as Cheryl, both in her moments on the trail and in her earlier life. The struggle of the wilderness is however the thing that brings out the most impressive parts of her performance. She plays awkward, fearful and frustrated at various moments. In two sequences you can fathom the possible human dangers that a young woman on a mission like this could face. The dangers from the wilderness get a little bit less attention but she does present a woman struggling with an obsession very clearly.
Laura Dern is the mother who inspires and maddens her. This is the third film I have seen her in during the last year or so. She has the reverse role of a mother losing her child in “The Fault in our Stars” and she is much more grounded and less showy in “When the Game Stands Tall“. As Cheryl’s mother, she shows us in brief moments the kind of love and fortitude that would make her a hero to her daughter. There is also an implied sense that her early life with the abusive father of her children is a source of some of Cheryl’s anger, but Dern never played the mom as a doormat. She was cautious and had limited options but as far as we can tell she ultimately did the right thing by her kids. Some of the film editing might make the performance more meaningful by contrasting the adult Cheryl with her younger self in some places.
Cheryl encounters a variety of obstacles along her path. Some of those are natural, some man made and many are self inflicted. The people she meets along the way are occasionally interesting but they rarely get much opportunity to sparkle and take focus away from the story we are watching. I suspect that the book delves deeply into some of the philosophies that are represented by the variety of fellow trekkers on her march. I am not at all surprised that the spiritual descendants of hippies are prevalent in the story. Yurt living, Jerry Garcia worshiping, iconoclasts populate some of the outskirts of civilization in the forest. Whether they are free spirits to be admired or outcasts to be puzzled over is not clear from the story. What is clear is that if you can look deeply into a Grateful Dead lyric or jam, or if dead poets and writers are inspiring to you, than you will get more out of this film than the rest of us.