“Sing features an amiable cast of characters with familiar voices”
After wading in the water in terms of quality for the better half of this year, Illumination Entertainment finally gets the above-average film they deserve with Sing. The sad part about a film like this – which is basically an animated variety show of animals covering yesterday and today’s pop tunes – is it’s more likely to fail than succeed on the simple merit that its narrative prompts for things like humor based on recognition, general unevenness, and lazy screenwriting. While all of those certainly come into play sooner or later, you might just be surprised, as I was, how Sing‘s effervescent charm sneaks up on you well into its second act and manifests its way into becoming an enjoyable, character-centered experience.
The film revolves around the perky Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a Koala bear who owns the historic Moon Theatre and has for the past twenty-five years. In the present day, however, the theater is dilapidated, with crippled, worn infrastructure that can barely stay intact. Buster hasn’t put on a show in three years, but with the help of his elderly, but well-meaning lizard assistant Ms. Crawly (director Garth Jennings), they decide to host a singing competition which will eventually pave the way for a variety show of sorts for the entire neighborhood.
Originally intending the winner of the competition to get $1,000, a typo by Ms. Crawly renders the cash prize $100,000, money that Buster doesn’t have but must fake like he does until the show is over. This becomes harder to do when he sees exactly how troubled most of his talent are, and how they’re all singing to escape or better themselves. There’s a teenage gorilla named Johnny (Taron Egerton), who is trying to forge a path for himself unlike his father’s that doesn’t involve petty crime and gang activity, a mouse named Mike (Seth MacFarlane), who is in total debt with no immediate relief, a young elephant named Meena (Tori Kelly), who needs to overcome stage-fright in order to pursue his dreams as a singer, a porcupine named Ash (Scarlett Johansson), who gets accepted while the other half of her duo/boyfriend Lance (Beck Bennett) does not, and a pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), who is caught in the middle of a struggling marriage with her husband and twenty-five piglets as she tries to relive her years as a performer.
A movie where animals sing once-popular radio hits feels like the “cat video”-infested bowels of Youtube taken to the next level, so on that note, much like their film The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination has cracked the secret to getting people interested in their films on a purely conceptual (no matter how basic) level. But after insulting us with Minions and shortchanging us with Pets, the studio finally gets it right with Sing by giving us what we subconsciously expected to see, which was a bit of a story behind the characters. We’ll come for the cuteness, but we’d also like to be given a reason to stay and a reason to connect to the film.
Sing features an amiable cast of characters with familiar voices – McConaughey and MacFarlane are very good, for that matter – and infuses their stories with enough interest to make them transcend the tropes they could’ve fallen into it quite easily. For example, the stories of Meena, Rosita, and Ash are actually kind of sad, and give way to the wonderful idea of female empowerment based on breaking out of “your place” or your comfort zone and fully becoming your own, confident person. Common, absolutely, but screenwriter Jennings infuses a bit of disillusionment into their stories to give them an emotional layer that might even echo or resonate with parents, who thought they were taking their kids to see another cute and cuddly kid movie. Maybe they might even see something in the way the Johnny character feels, as he’s constantly pressured by his father to be tough and to be a part of his gang rather than encouraging him to be his own person.
Sing has moments where its lazy screenwriting does prevail, such as the handful of montages we get that show a goofy pig dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or kangaroos singing the Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” They’re moments of brief amusement until you realize how entirely vapid and distracting they really are. Thankfully, where Jennings could’ve stopped writing, he decided to keep going, and the result is a modestly successful animated film that at least makes an admirable attempt to give us more than the internet and other movies of the like already have.