In the sugary anthropomorphic cartoon Sing, a koala named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) attempts to salvage his once golden theater by orchestrating a talent competition. A plan, haphazardly, is set that the critters and beasts of this animal city can compete for a cash prize, and with it hopefully restore Buster’s theater and crumbling reputation; he fancies himself a furry Florenz Zeigfield for the Carpool Karaoke generation, let’s say. Conceived through Illumination Entertainment (the animation giant behind those pesky Despicable Me minions and the execrable Minions), the eccentric filter of Son of Rambow writer-director Garth Jennings and co-director Christophe Laurdelet, Sing aims for cheery, Top 40-flavored holiday fluff. Which, in it of itself, is not entirely a bad thing.
Yet, even for all of Sing‘s harmless, featherweight intentions, the movie – which runs an absurdly long 108 minutes – starts to grate, even irritate with its manic pacing and nonexistent storytelling. It’s something of a pattern for Illumination flicks too, which tend to lean more towards the sight gag, the barely sketched joke, a squeaky noise over a cohesive plot or connective narrative tissue. On those grounds, Sing somewhat plays like an extended, all musical version of an episode of Family Guy and functions as a movie filled with asides but, alas has no center or real point. The small, simple pleasures of Sing, unfortunately, never align with an sense of involvement in Buster or his master theater impresario dreams, but when the slapstick settles and the bevy of pop songs on the soundtrack take center stage. Here, and to be fair the music department (and particularly the licensing magicians) cover a colorful, broad spectrum of song titles, the nostalgia and muscle memory of lots of fine music get to do the heavy lifting while the movie as a whole gets to coast on mediocrity.
While it would probably be unfair, and surely unkind, to compare Sing to Zootopia, this year’s other major anthropomorphic animated feature, the differences are stark. While Zootopia, with grounded maturity and narrative wit, crystallized the geography of its animal universe and honestly explored complex themes under the banner of family-friendly Disney ingenuity, Sing – perhaps in act of defiance or indifference – is slapdash, frantic and plays more like a collection of skits. Sure, the aim here is lighter and sillier (Zootopia had silly moments too), but even in its sprightly, eager-to-please manner, Sing neglects to articulate the who and how of its own animal-led universe. The film never feels interested in its characters nor their roots. So why should we?
Classics like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Queen’s “Under Pressure” among many, many work the feels, there is the bare-bones of a structure at play in Sing. The American Idol-ized contest Buster concocts comes as his theater (which he inherited) is facing foreclosure. A snag comes right from the start due to a typo in the press release that mistakes the cash prize as $100,000 instead of $1,000 from Buster’s senile iguana assistant Ms. Crawley (voiced by Jennings himself). She has a glass eye that pops out of place from time to time; try and guess how many times that serves as a gag?
The contestants – as broadly sketched and arbitrarily animated as they are – include an underappreciated pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), an overworked mother of 25, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an obnoxious mouse with a Rat Pack vibe, Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punkette porcupine, Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla who wants to break from his criminal family and Meena (Tori Kelly), a meek elephant with staggering stage fright and the voice of an angel. The less said about flamboyant German-accented pig Gunther (Nick Kroll), the better. Each come with an obstacle – resentment, ego, angst, emasculation and fear – but the filmmakers and animators seems to grow less and less interested in them as the movie moves forward. In the place of character development is reductive messaging of the like of “follow your dreams” and “believe in yourself.” Or maybe its “Shake It Off” as the Taylor Swift pop hit is prominently featured and very well may be the natural effect of audience members as they exit the movie theater.
A bigger, deeper problem – and one that casts a certain cynicism on the movie as a whole – is that Buster, Sing‘s lead and principle dreamer – is actually rather scummy. The whole movie rests on Buster’s pure devotion to theater, yet as a character or a construct, is really more of a small-time con artist than anything else. He schemes and grovels out of the name of purity and “let’s put on a show” gumption, but illustrates more bottom denominator salesman than showman. To wit, his theater is in the money pit not from noble failures of artistic expressions but from terrible ideas and his solution is a mere get rich quick scheme – perhaps he might have sought some writers, workshop some new talent. That might distract from the slapdash sight gags however.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Imagine an animated version of the late television series Glee populated by a chorus of singing and dancing animals and you get the general gist of Illumination Entertainment’s latest offering, Sing. The jukebox is full of tunes – so as to appeal to as many demographics as possible, naturally – and there are glints of dopey, sugary pizzazz in supply but the movie is such an overly manic, woefully underdeveloped and arbitrarily animated pageant show at the end of the day, it’s difficult to sing its praises. However, the film is so eager to get to its final curtain call it sidesteps character development and retreads familiar themes with such haste and uppity busyness in the process. It’s sweet relief when the damn song is over and done with.