“Some thirty-something hipster agents keep stopping me to say it is the best thing they have ever seen,” Illumination chief Chris Meledandri told me moments after the World Premiere of the new animated feature Sing had wrapped and he arrived at the after-party at Montecito Restaurant. The film, which depicts an American Idol-style audition for a group of singing animals, was an instant hit at a packed screening at the Princess Of Wales Theatre Sunday afternoon.
The move, an unusual one for a big holiday major studio ‘toon, made a statement here at the Toronto International Film Festival that this film would not only be a major hit and priority for Universal and Illumination, but that it would also be an awards player in the unusually heavy Animated Feature competition this year. Showing up with a splashy event at TIFF is one way to do it, and with voiceover stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson on hand, along with a post mini-concert of a few of the film’s 65 songs by co-stars Jennifer Hudson and Tori Kelly, the fans went wild, both outside where the biggest crowd I have seen here in a long time strained to get photos, and inside where the crowd with tickets was equally enthusiastic.
When I asked Meledandri if he was surprised by the reception he definitely answered in the affirmative. “I was surprised because in the 30 years I have been in the business I have never seen anything like it, not with Ice Age, not with Despicable Me, not with Minions,” he said. It is rare that every song gets applause from the audience, but this film did that. Universal’s Ron Meyer was among those showing support at the after-party and he told me he was certainly thrilled with the reaction as well. And why not? Illumination has become Universal’s most reliable cash cow, with one hit after another, most recently this summer’s smash The Secret Life Of Pets. And I think Sing could equal it and put the studio in the Oscar race in the ani feature category.
In a show of synergy, the party at Montecito for Sing later was turned over to U’s specialty label Focus for their North American premiere of Cannes success Loving. I caught up with stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga at that one where they were pleased with the standing ovation the film received for its first appearance outside of Cannes for an English-speaking audience. Although this was in Canada, not the states where the moving and quietly dignified story of the inter-racial marriage takes place, the stars noticed a marked difference in how the audience reacted in particular to the lighter moments. Director Jeff Nichols for his part told me he was pleased the audience got very silent for some key scenes. That means it played just like he wanted. Focus Features releases Loving on November 4. Busy Focus also was bringing their Tom Ford Venice Film Festival Silver Bear winner, Nocturnal Animals in for its North American premiere Sunday night in the 10 PM late slot, and just yesterday rolled out A Monster Calls here as well.
Another Sunday World Premiere here at TIFF, also at the busy Princess Of Wales Theatre, was Bleecker Street’s smart and powerful holocaust drama, Denial which stars Rachel Weisz as academic Deborah Lipstadt who along with her publisher was sued in 2000 by Holocaust denier David Irving (an excellent Timothy Spall). Although this case happened 16 years ago, more than one moviegoer Sunday night noticed the current relevance of the film, particularly during the presidential campaign season. One key scene shows the role the powerful media can play in establishing what is true and what isn’t, even if at odds with the facts. Weisz is splendid here and when Lipstadt spoke during the brief Q&A after credits rolled, the sound and cadence of her voice sounded exactly like Weisz who is just excellent here. Rolling it out slowly starting September 30 is a strategy endorsed by Bleecker Street’s Andrew Karpen who believes he will have much of October to himself for this adult-skewing drama, plus it is just weeks before the election and Denial gives food for thought that could play into that. No coincidence there.
After its screening the movie received a standing ovation. At the Q&A, Lipstadt explained how she bonded with Weisz before the film started shooting, with Weisz asking all sorts of personal questions to get to her essence, even calling her several times before key scenes in order to get it exactly right. The courtroom dialogue is taken directly from the actual transcripts to ensure authenticity so there was no improvising. “Rachel would call me at night before she was about to film a scene and say ‘tell me what you were thinking, tell me how this was for you’. She wanted as much information as possible, not to mimic me but to take all that in but to create her own Deborah Lipstadt. I think she did a damn good job,” she said.
Weisz is currently doing rehearsals for David Hare’s play Plenty, so only made a brief appearance to intro the film before heading back to that. Hare certainly understood, as he wrote the screenplay as well for Denial, which is directed by Mick Jackson and produced by Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff for Participant Media and Bleecker Street. Co-star Tom Wilkinson, refusing to use the mikes, spoke movingly about their shoot at Auschwitz.
Lipstadt explained there were limitations for the actors and that the actual gas chamber set was re-created elsewhere due to the restrictions of the real thing. However they did those scenes, they were powerful. Lipstadt summed up the themes of the film. “I think it sends a message to stand up to hatred, to stand up to prejudice, to stand up to lies. If this film sends a message about the difference between truth and lies I will be very satisfied. I don’t think it will solve the problem of the rise in demogoguery. I don’t think it will solve the assault on facts, of people making up their own facts. If it helps a little bit though I will be satisfied,” she said. Bleecker Street plans to launch an Oscar campaign on its behalf , and judging by the first-nighter’s reactions it could gain some traction in key categories.