Year 9, Day 185 - 7/4/17 - Movie #2,679
BEFORE: I dealt with the majority of Matthew McConaughey's films in 2015, with a chain of 9 films in a row, so these three films, with him carrying over from "Free State of Jones", are basically a bit of clean-up work. Since I incorrectly anticipated being done with the project by now, even if I clear an actor's filmography, given time, more films are going to pop up, especially true for a high-profile actor. But what a range, thanks to animation he can play both a beetle-shaped samurai and a play-producing koala bear...
THE PLOT: In a city of animals, a theater impresario's attempt to save his theater with a singing competition becomes grander than he plans, as the finalists find that their lives will never be the same.
AFTER: The competition is fierce, and I don't mean the singing competition depicted here - I'm referring to the competition between animation studios, as evidenced by two of them releasing similar films in the same calendar year. Remember "Antz" and "A Bug's Life"? "Despicable Me" and "Megamind"? "Madagascar" and "The Wild"? "Finding Nemo" and "A Shark Tale"? Someday they're going to figure out who the spies are at the studios who are leaking plot information to the competition, and then look out.
So it's no surprise that two studios released films during 2016, both with fictional cities where all the animals live together and interact. One's got the twist of adding in the popular reality-show singing competition plot, so it's very tempting to refer to this film as "Zootopia's Got Talent" or maybe "Zootopian Idol". But while this opens up new plot possibilities and complications for our furry friends, I've got a few reservations. (A good dose of "The Producers" is thrown in here, with the theater producer who's basically a scam artist, only here he's genuinely trying to put on a good show.).
First off, the singing competition here doesn't bear any resemblance to the way that the most popular ones in real life genuinely, you know, work. Who holds such a competition in a live theater, when it's usually presented in the popular television format? Secondly, the hundreds of animals that show up to audition are narrowed down to 6 or 7 quite quickly. Wait, what happened to callbacks, or the semi-finals? We seemed to go straight from the open call to the finals. (I'm reminded of the "Pitch Perfect" films, where someone believes that a cappella competitions have commentators, and they just don't.). It's called research, writers, and I expect you to do a little bit of it before you write your screenplay.
Who knows, maybe the writers did their research and chose to ignore reality (and reality TV), maybe they just couldn't resist the possibility of adding in the old "Let's save our theater!" plot-line, which goes back to, I'm guessing, the decline of vaudeville. And while we're talking about throwbacks, how were the songs chosen for this film? Some of them are older than I am, and I'm at the age where I shouldn't even be watching children's films, not without kids present anyway. (My wife wondered how I went to see an animated film by myself in the theater last week and didn't get arrested...). I mean, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is old, but it's become a movie soundtrack staple. But "My Way"? Come on, Sinatra's version of that song came out in 1969! "Carry That Weight" by the Beatles is just about as old, and "Gimme Some Lovin'" from the Spencer Davis Group is even older, it was released in 1966! How hip can songs be when they're nearly 50 years old!
To be fair, "Carry That Weight" is seen performed in flashback, and the animal that sings "My Way" is a throwback act, a mouse that channels Sinatra in his clothing and demeanor, but still - or were these songs thrown in to appeal to the parents (or grandparents), who will no doubt be forced to watch this with their kids? By contrast, "I'm Still Standing" and "Under Pressure" come from the 1980's (my music decade) and then you've got Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and Katy Perry's "Firework" to appeal to the younger generation. (And "Firework" being sung justifies me watching this film on July 4. Sort of.)
Also, if I'm being fair, there are substantial differences between "Zootopia" and "Sing", even though they could be set in the same animal-heavy city. For starters, in "Zootopia" there's a family of bunnies with dozens of kids, and in "Sing", there's a large litter of pigs. You know, because when you think of animals that breed a lot, naturally you think about pigs? The messages of the films also seem to run parallel but not exactly overlapping - "Zootopia" says that with hard work you can overcome your nature and be whatever you want, while "Sing" says that with practice you can overcome your stage fright, or lack of dancing skills or piano-playing skills and become a performer. But the latter message, even though we see it all the time on these competition shows, isn't as healthy by comparison in the long run. Should we continue to glorify the easy road to fame, the chance of being discovered in a talent show, and display it to children as a valid career choice? After all, the world needs cops, doctors and ditch-diggers too, and kids could easily be made to feel "less than" if they don't have this hidden natural singing ability, and let's face it, most of them won't.
A couple of other things are a bit off-message, too. Since everything (naturally) works out for the best, does that mean that Buster Moon was right to pull all his hustling impresario moves in the first place? Bialystock and Bloom ended up in jail in "The Producers", comically getting exactly what they deserved for their scam, but Buster Moon skates? Similarly, the mouse cheats at cards and also super-extends his credit limit, but ends up keeping the car AND his girlfriend? Where's the karmic balance? Worst of all, Rosita the pig sneaks off to rehearsal every day, leaving an admittedly-clever Rube Goldberg-type machine to feed her piglets and clean up the breakfast dishes. While it's a creative solution that allows her to chase her dream, it's also parental neglect. There was a teachable moment that was missed here, something like, "Hey, kids, if you want to be a famous singer when you grow up, maybe don't have 25 kids."
I could go on - Johnny the gorilla is a getaway driver for his Dad's gang of bank robbers, but when there's a conflict between the heist and rehearsal, he chooses poorly (or does he? That's a matter of some debate.). But my point is that he's an accessory to a crime, but never gets punished for it - another wrong message to send the kids. His father (once he gets over the shock of hearing that his son wants to be a singer) breaks out of jail to watch him perform, and this is shown as a positive thing, so he can accept his son. Yeah, but he broke out of jail! Can we pay some attention to the examples these characters are setting for the kids?
The other main difference between "Zootopia" and "Sing" is that Disney's film took greater advantage of the individual nature of each animal species - the fox acted like the stereotypical crafty fox, the lion was in a position of power, the sloths conducted business very slowly, etc. - or they were comically diametrically opposed in some cases. In "Sing" there's very little relation to who each animal is and what they do - the roles are virtually interchangeable. Are koalas noted for their hustling abilities, or elephants noted for stage fright? Not that I'm aware of. The sole exceptions were that the gorillas were thugs, the bears were Russian thugs, and the sheep character was something of a follower, but that last one almost feels accidental.
I'd really like to know which stars did their own singing, and more to the point, which ones didn't. It's not that big of a deal, I mean, who cares if an animal's singing and speaking voices were provided by the same people? I just want to know - and the fact that the "sung by" credits are missing at the end of the film on some songs makes me even more curious. (Hmm, according to the soundtrack, all of the actors did their own singing. Let's just say I still have some doubts.)
Also starring the voices of Reese Witherspoon (last seen in "Hot Pursuit"), Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "Don Jon"), Seth MacFarlane (last heard in "Ted 2"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "The Anniversary Party"), Taron Egerton (last seen in "Eddie the Eagle"), Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders (last heard in "Minions"), Jennifer Hudson (last seen in "Dreamgirls"), Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz (last seen in "Spy"), Nick Kroll (last heard in "Sausage Party"), Beck Bennett (last seen in "Zoolander 2"), Nick Offerman (last heard in "Ice Age: Collision Course"), Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones (last seen in "Ghostbusters"), Rhea Perlman (last seen in "The Sessions"), Laraine Newman (last heard in "The Boxtrolls"), Bill Farmer, with vocal cameos from Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright.
RATING: 6 out of 10 bio-luminescent squid