Since it’s first full-length production Despicable Me (2010), Illumination Studios has produced—if not almost exclusively—several animation films starring Nature’s other species: animals. But, turning its lens away from humans, though often successfully comedic, hasn’t stopped them from falling back on abused stereotypes and platitudes.
Anthropomorphism is in itself a very old tradition in children’s literature—think of La Fontaine’s fables. As a society we seem to have agreed upon animals as the less offensive subject with which to illustrate human stereotypes and bad behavior. Although children’s stories always carry some sort of moral, how can we be sure of the message being ultimately communicated to young viewers?
With such a long tradition of innuendo and subtext, animated films exacerbate this issue. And it isn’t any wonder that they cater as much to children as they do their adult parents. Where do screenwriters and directors draw the line? Is it okay to justify a blurring of said line by the use of animals?
Illumination Studio’s animated musical Sing (2016), was written and directed by Garth Jennings—a novice in the world of virtual film. His first attempt was generally well received and is even thought by some critics to have brought the company out of a creative rut—namely, a series of Minions movies that has been stretched too far. It’s the kind of tried-and-true ‘believe in yourself’ plot that wins over audiences. And certainly, it’s hard to argue with such a crowd-pleasing formula: animals living as humans (clothing, homes, jobs, etc.), no less than 84 hit American songs, and insecure characters that ultimately succeed. But upon closer inspection, Sing just doesn’t surpass any of our expectations and relies too heavily on existing models.
Set in an imaginary place—not surprisingly identical to Los Angeles—animals from all walks of life drop everything to audition for a singing competition. It is Buster Moon’s (a koala impresario) latest plan to skirt bankruptcy. Out of the thousands of animals willing to brave the stage of Moon’s old theatre, only five talented contestants are called back: an arrogant street mouse, a stay-at-home pig, a counter-culture porcupine, a tough-looking-dreamy-voiced gorilla, and a paralyzingly insecure elephant. You could also count in a group of five super coordinated, jumpy Japanese foxes.
There isn’t anything new in Garth Jennings’ plot. In fact, fans of the televised competitions X Factor, The Voice and others, will immediately recognize the storyline. Jennings spends a good amount of time on the audition process itself: camera-obsessed individuals waiting in line outside the theatre, disillusioned divas, and respectable but unattractive singers (i.e. a too tall talented giraffe). It is all a hilariously successful parody of the very real human spectacle that these sorts of competitions produce. Yet, it lacks any sort of true imagination beyond the fact that audiences are watching animals dressed up as fame-hungry human adults.
Outside of the theatre, Jennings resorts to the kinds of character depictions that should, in our sociopolitical climate, make us cringe:
Rosita is described as a ‘domestic pig’ who, having abandoned her music dreams to take care of her 25 piglets and husband, is now given a chance to try again. But her life is riddled with tired clichés: her kids are untamable, her husband overweight, demanding, and blasé. She isn’t appreciated outside of fulfilling their basic needs. In fact, they don’t notice her absence until the Rube Goldberg contraption she contrives breaks down. Mike is a street-singing mouse whose voice is based on that of the real-life Frank Sinatra. A stereotypical New Jerseyan who is an arrogant hustler and falls in with the wrong gambling crowd at a night club. Meena, the super shy Indian elephant, lives with her family; that is, her parents and grandparents. They are pushy, overbearing, and embarrassingly involved in her personal life. Ash, the alternative rocker, has an egotistical boyfriend who’s just scraping by on bar gigs. When she timidly mentions her own personal ambitions he shuts her down and replaces her. Buster is adamant on changing her ‘look’ for something more current: pink-and-sparkle teenage pop. Eddie, Buster’s friend, is a lazy video gaming sheep whose inheritance has him living large in the family’s pool house. He’s reluctant to become Buster’s business partner, but having the right connections to high society makes him an important asset.
These characters all have their happy ending, as is their due in any children’s story. Sure, Jennings’ characters are resilient—if not too optimistic. The message of teamwork and perseverance is clear. No one leaves such a film feeling down. Yet, we can’t help but wonder at how easily they ‘made it’. What of their lives after the final production? Does Rosita go back to be a stay-at-home mom; does Ash make a name for herself? For many real-life competition contestants, life just goes back to normal. Is there hope that these poor animals will surpass their very limiting and stereotypical lives? Jennings doesn’t offer them more than a new theatre space. (And perhaps, regretfully, a sequel).