Buster Moon has a dream: to be the most successful koala in showbiz. In “Sing,” he managed to salvage the run-down venue where his musical theater ambitions might thrive, much to the delight of family audiences. Now, in that toon’s jam-packed “let’s put on a show” sequel, Buster Moon and his menagerie of pigs, primates and other crooning critters head to Redshore City — the Las Vegas-like entertainment capital of their parallel universe, which is basically human in every way except for the fact that there are no humans to be found in it — to launch a massive song-and-dance extravaganza.
If “Sing 2” sounds like a shameless excuse for a bunch of celebrities to perform cover versions of Top 40 hits while animated animals lip-sync the lyrics for our amusement … well, that’s essentially what it is. Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) and friends set out to pitch an original show to oddly Trump-like hotelier Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a white wolf with an enormous arena to fill and nothing to draw in the crowds. Their idea is a joke, literally, and yet, returning writer-director Garth Jennings recognizes it as a vehicle for an insanely over-produced finale — more than 20 minutes of encore performances from emo gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), porcupine pop star Ash (Scarlett Johansson) and porcine pair Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) and Gunter (Nick Kroll), joined by U2 megastar Bono as a rocker they must lure from retirement for the big night.
True to its brand, Illumination has engineered another easy-to-swallow confection designed to maximize audience delight, whether on first or 40th viewing, although this time, there’s almost zero nutritional value. In fact, “Sing 2” just might be the most corporate animated product since the days of “My Little Pony,” “He-Man” and other children’s toy tie-ins getting half-hour commercial space on TV. Here, it’s not necessarily merch that Universal-owned Illumination is pushing (though there’s plenty of it out there) so much as the entire pop-music establishment, led by artists and tunes from its own catalog — that and fashion, as the crew partnered with Rodarte to design the CG costumes.
It’s all part of the TikTok-ification of mainstream media, as the attention-deficit storytelling bombards audiences with a monster playlist of song snippets, some performed by characters, others lacquered over the action to keep kids engaged. While the characters go about the familiar enough work of writing and rehearsing a musical, Jennings constantly cuts away to embellish the experience with throwaway visual gags (mostly animals doing silly things) that play like 2- to 10-second viral videos. That approach speaks to a key difference between Illumination and such competitors as Pixar and DreamWorks: “Sing 2” isn’t really about coherent storytelling so much as analyzing and anticipating what will make audiences feel good.
Sure, the result amounts to a kind of jukebox monstrosity, in which virtually any song could be substituted with a comparable tune without impacting the experience (why ask Halsey to sing Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” and not Sia’s “Chandelier” or Katy Perry’s “Firework”?). But think of it instead as an elaborate machinery of joy, and it’s easier to appreciate how every choice seems designed to put a smile on people’s faces. Beyond that, “Sing 2” all but defines any kind of meaningful critical analysis. How exactly are audiences meant to make sense of this world, in which everything’s a joke, and characters behave according to no logic other than what will set up the next number or gag?
The original “Sing” operated as a cross between “A Chorus Line” and talent-contest shows like “American Idol,” serving up audition montages of unusual species interpreting recognizable songs in highly idiosyncratic ways. “Sing 2” brings more of the same, though it’s virtually impossible to determine good from bad. What’s the reason a slug gets gonged for covering Drake’s “Hotline Bling” or an elegant antelope (or something) is rejected for attempting Adele’s “Hello”? The gastropod sounds great, while the latter looks like Gazelle from “Zootopia.” Do Drake and Adele exist in this alternate animal-crackers world, or are the performers supposedly presenting original tunes? What is the bar for evaluating any of what we hear, other than whether it makes us laugh?
By the same token, is Crystal right or wrong to shoot down Buster Moon’s original musical, after the koala and his crew sneak into the Redshore City audition room? The wolf in chic clothing doesn’t want to hear it. Then Austrian-sounding oinker Gunter mentions a kooky space opera he calls “Out of This World,” which catches Crystal’s attention, provided that the crew can deliver Clay Calloway (Bono as a grizzled old lion). Oh, and they must also cast his daughter Porsha (Halsey), who may or may not be a good singer. Because who can judge?
Once the night of the big show rolls around, nothing goes smoothly anyway, with each of the troupers freezing up, then overcoming his or her performance anxiety in a way that makes the number more satisfying than it would have been had all gone according to plan. Not even Clay Calloway is immune, forcing another character to improvise an acoustic version of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (which again raises the question of whether the animals have the same history with this song as humans do).
Bono is an undeniably big get for Illumination, although one assumes that Universal just backed up the cash truck, getting a new U2 tune in the process. The “Sing” recipe is all about recycling familiar songs, but that track, “Your Song Saved My Life” — which is terrific — hints at how special this franchise could be if the team committed to writing original music instead. It’s not fair to call them lazy: “Sing 2” features some of the funniest and most fully rendered animation in the studio’s oeuvre to date. However, whereas Buster Moon refuses to settle for being second-rate (“Super, silly fun” and “Your kids will love it” read the reviews on the show that inspires his big trip), Illumination evidently considers that the sweet spot.