So, I go to more kids movies than I used to: my son is three and a half, and we've taken him to see a bunch of films in the movie theater. He sits (for the most part), and looks utterly adorable crunching a small bag of popcorn. There's been some solid kids movies that we've gone to - Moana and Zootopia, which are a good reminder of how kids movies can be smart and entertaining. We just went to see Sing, and while it was fun, it's a good example of what not to do.
The premise of the film from the trailers: a koala named Buster Moon owns a theater that's struggling, and to try and get things back on track, he decides to hold a singing competition. A typo on the flier shows off a $100,000 prize, and a ton of animals from around the city go out to audition and take part in the competition.
This is sort of where the film goes off the rails. For a film called Sing, there's remarkably little of that. What's there is good, and funny, but the film is loaded down with a whole bunch of side plots:
- Buster is trying to get money to finance his prize, and to save his theater.
- Johnny (a Gorilla) likes to sing, but his criminal father thinks its a waste of time.
- Rosita (A pig housewife) enters because she feels unsatisfied being a housewife, and ignored by her husband.
- Meena is a shy elephant who's prodded into competing by her friends and family.
- Ash, a porcupine, is the lesser half of a singing relationship.
- Mike, a mouse, is arrogant and believes the prize is his, and gets into trouble with some Russian bears.
- There's a whole bunch of time spent on characters that don't actually do anything: one is beaned on the head and leaves early in the film, while a couple of others leave.
- Meanwhile, there's some random hijinks as Buster is trying to get the competition on its way.
There's a lot there, and it feels like a whole bunch of parts, such as Johnny's father and Mike's troubles, were stuck in there to put in some action and stakes. What it really does though, is take the stakes away from the focus of the film: saving the theater.
Spoilers: the theater isn't saved about halfway through the film: it's destroyed due to Mike's greed, and repossessed by the bank. This happens about halfway to two thirds of the way through the film. It completely takes away any dramatic tension that the film was building to: the characters were working to win a competition that was essentially a sham. The end basically turns into a singing show for the joy of singing. That's a fine goal, but not something that you should pivot to halfway through the film.
What this film lacks, and what a lot of stories don't do, is focus on the end point. There's plenty of material here for this film to work well on its own: a group of singing animals save their theater. Beginning to end, this would have been a great, heartwarming film to watch. Sing just has a ton of extra junk material injected into it. There's good parts here: Meena's story has a great ark, as dose Ash and Rosita. Johnny's story could have been accomplished with a father who was essentially a blue collar worker. Mike could have been eliminated completely.
This is frustrating to see, because it feels like the solid story was there to begin with, but was chipped away by studio notes. We didn't need a rooftop prison break chase scene here. We didn't need a subplot with Russian mafia. It feels like these parts were added late in the game, with the assumption that it wouldn't matter; it's a kid's movie. Kids like zany antics, so who cares?
Thinking about the stories that are important to me, many were ones that I consumed as a child or young adult. Many of these stories didn't talk down to me as a child: they knew what a good story was and went with it. They weren't necessarily chipped down to introduce characters for toys, or were designed essentially for marketing.
Compare this film to Moana, which came out earlier this winter. It's an excellent story that really doesn't pull punches. Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace recently wrote a good book called Creativity Inc, about Pixar's approach to storytelling (and is a great look at how Disney has taken over Pixar's ability to tell great stories - to the detriment of Pixar). What he writes boils down to: set up a solid story to start and make sure that it's the best you can make it. The visuals, characters, and acting will all follow. It's an approach that clearly works well for Moana, but it's a lesson that Sing really missed.
It's a shame, because the movie is cute and fun. It's a 'rent the movie from Redbox' rather than 'go out and experience it in a theater'.