There’s something about Garth Jennings’ feature filmography. They’re always unexpected works. I mean, Hitchhiker’s Guide (which demonstrates pretty confident ambition for a debut); into the small and personal Son of Rambow; into Sing, a bi-budget, all-star animated comedy. He do a pretty good job with all of them too, they all got their flaws but it’s a solid filmography. I think this because Jennings has this, like, intrinsic understanding of pop forms. Not just in filmmaking but it’s like he’s internalised populism, so when he makes a film which is basically a dramatised X Factor he can approach the material with sincerity.
Cos this film is a dramatised X Factor, make no mistake. It’s produced as a staged performance rather than a televised one but it’s all the same thing. Film even recreates the human interest dramas that producers use to make the shows compelling. Sure, it’s told as narrative rather than documentary but the effect is all the same. As such, one’s interest in the film is going to end up being roughly in proportion to their interest in their subject matter. Imagine Unreal but if that were being told by someone with genuine affection for the form. There’s little elevation being done here, aside from some third act tomfoolery, but that too feels intentional.
Think about the decision to make it a staged competition. See, the myth of the modern talent competition is one of egalitarianism, however, they are, by their very nature, tools of exclusion. By placing the proceedings on a stage the film deliberately places the action in a different context and, through the action of the plot, serves to deconstruct this exclusionary paradigm.
Animation also represents a medium in which Jennings’ skills shine. Much of his filmmaking uses the juxtaposition of the physicality of bodies and space to create meaning. Look at how the spaces the Vogons inhabit instruct of their character, and likewise how Ford and Arthur exist in them. Look at how Will relates to the spaces he’s put in in Son of Rambow. Animation allows the characters and the spaces to take on any shape you like, so the possibilities just explode off the screen here. Might as well mention Zootopia now, the comparison is inevitable, but here’s the interesting point to make. Zootopia presents a world where everyone fits. Sing explicitly does not, except on the stage, the stage is the right size for everyone. That’s nice.
On the downside, with the ensemble cast, all the character’s side stories don’t feel like they got enough time to properly settle. Scarlett Johannson’s Ash and Reese Witherspoon’s Rosita probably come off the best because their arcs are kept relatively minor and their intersection with the A plot is a matter of character motivation. Taron Egerton’s Johnny and Seth MacFarlane’s Mike are the uneven ones, both of their stories intersect in some way with organised crime. A decision that makes for some fun scenes but doesn’t ever feel thematically coherent with the rest of the picture. These also happen to be the ones that intersect dramatically with the main plot, and while I do get the necessity of that, it just feels like a contrivance. Especially when these grand threats just stop existing when no longer narratively convenient.
Also, why you gotta make the criminals gorillas Garth? Why tho? It’s not as bad as it could be, the characters aren’t otherwise coded as black and their accents are more white working class London. But seriously, nobody stopped and said this might not be the greatest idea? I know you’re in France but, really? Come on…
It’s not ground-breaking, I don’t really think ground-breaking is in the wheelhouse of either Garth Jennings or Illumination Studios. Is though, a warm, light-hearted, generous, fun film but one of our overlooked pop-filmmakers. But if you have any interest in it you’ll already have known.