My kids and I, ever so charmingly behind the times, just went to see Sing at the cheapie theater. If you are also delayed in your cultural viewing, it's an animated film about animals performing in a musical talent competition.
It's a really cute movie in general, and I love me some musicals, but one thing I was struck by was how diverse the body types were, and how no one cared.
Here are the main characters posing below. You can also see the promo clips in the video above.
Starting from the left, you've got a tiny male mouse with a big ego. The elephant is a shy girl who's trying to overcome her stage fright. The pig in capris is a stay-at-home mom to 25 piglets. (She does some amazing Rube Goldberg-esque preparations to care for her kids while she's off rehearsing, leading me to think she should really have been an engineer.) The porcupine is a teenager who's coming out from under the smothering shadow of her wannabe-rockstar boyfriend. The koala is the morally ambiguous manager. The gorilla is a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to break free of his family's crime business. The sassy pig in bright red spandex is a confidently dancing phenom.
One thing in common with all of them is that never, in the course of the movie, did anyone suggest that they should make their bodies look different.
This should be obvious when animals are characters, but it isn't. Contrast the animals above with Judy Hopps from Zootopia, who's drawn in a more conventionally attractive-to-humans way:
You can tell just from a drawing of a bunny that if Judy Hopps were a human, she'd be thin and femininely fit, with a defined waist. Consider also that Zootopia's whole plot was predicated on the idea that Judy Hopps was too small and dainty to compete as a police officer.
The Sing characters, on the other hand, are much different. They're still all drawn in ways that anthropomorphize them, so I can just sit here and appreciate that the artists chose such disparate body shapes for all these sympathetic characters.
Rosita the pig doesn't have a defined waist, and no one suggests she should camouflage the (25 times!) postpartum baby weight.
Meena is a bit of a visual joke in being an elephant who wants to hide. Once she comes into her own, everyone is in awe of her voice. Now, her energetic dancing does break a rickety stage a couple times, but everyone just accepts this as part of the whole elephant gig. Even then, she comes across as powerful and not as shameful.
Ash the edgy porcupine resists being styled into a teenage pop star and instead writes her own song and changes up her outfit to reflect her aesthetic. Once she chooses a direction, even though it wasn't his idea, the manager is behind her 100%.
Buster Moon is the manager, and he's an adorable koala. There's a scene where he resorts to washing cars with his furry body. He's not the nicest guy, but I still want to cuddle him.
Johnny is the gorilla who wants out of his father's gang. He's burly and looks rough, but all he wants is to play the piano and sing with his delicious voice.
Mike is a crooning mouse who's larger than life, despite his diminutive size. There's no small-shaming here, either — everyone's plenty intimidated by this take-no-prisoners mouse.
Gunter is the flamboyant dancer who coaxes Rosita out of her mommy shell. She's been caring for others so long and so faithfully that she's lost sight of her own identity. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Gunter is a definite pig, with a fat round tum, but he rocks that deep-necked spangly unitard and is proud of his body and his skills.
This all reflects something I've noticed in children's books and other media all along. When animals are the main characters, there's less impetus for body shaming, and more acceptance of diversity. This isn't always the case, of course — animals such as Judy Hopps have been styled to look attractive by human standards — but there's usually more range and less apology for size and shape differences. Now, the voice cast here has its downsides in being largely white (I see that as a missed opportunity for behind-the-scenes diversity, although Tori Kelly and Jennifer Hudson star), but whenever animals are heading up a movie, it lets kids see what they want to in them. If a kid identifies as an elephant or a mouse or somewhere in between, there is something here for them to hang onto and feel proud about.
I realize there are plenty of animal-themed animated movies that show animals of different sizes without touching on body image issues. Finding Dory, for instance, is another one we saw recently, and none of the fish were enhanced to look conventionally attractive in a human way. But I feel like Sing is in a different category from a movie like Finding Dory, because the action in Finding Dory is all animal-centric. Finding Dory's plot is predicated on the animals being animals, and humans are minor characters who exist in the background. Sing, on the other hand, is more of (in my eyes) a tween film that shows animals acting out a human story. Fish might search for family members in real life; elephants wouldn't sing in a talent show. That Sing is a tale not of animals but of humans-as-animals and yet is still as generous to these characters in letting them be who they are gets a high mark from me. Plus, you'd think almost any performance-type movie would have makeover scenes, but any re-styling the characters do stems from their own creativity and growth and is not forced on them from Buster Moon or other outside pressure.
Contrast that with movies and shows that display or cast real kids, and, once you get past the preschool shows, you'll see a trend of all thin and conventionally pretty actors with maybe one fat sidekick character, if you're lucky. I've watched a lot of Disney as a mother to three, so trust me here. Think Scooby Doo, if you need a reference you can probably pull up in your own mind. Often the characters will be all or mostly white as well, with one or two minor characters of color. I have seen some improvement lately with more diverse ethnic casting, but casting of different body types lags behind, particularly when it comes to girl and women characters.
I'm hoping that more animated movies and shows follow Sing's example of showing characters of all different sizes and shapes without judgment or comment, and that real-life casting takes a cue from that. For now, this is a fun and inspiring movie you and your kids can enjoy, no matter what your shape or size.