Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is the owner of a music theater, having dreamt of going into show business ever since he was a young koala bear. Unfortunately, all of Buster’s recent productions have been major commercial failures – prompting him to use his theater to host a singing competition, in the hopes that it will be successful enough to save his struggling business. Due to a mistake, however, the flyers for Buster’s competition end up listing the grand prize as $100,000 (rather than $1,000, as Buster intended) and before long, nearly every animal in his city with dreams of superstardom has lined up to audition and try to win the “big prize”.
Among the animals competing to become the next big musical sensation are Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla who doesn’t want to follow in his (criminal) father’s footsteps; Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig who still yearns to become a professional singer even now that she’s a mother to more than two dozen piglets; Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with a terrific singing voice but terrible stage fright; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a teenaged porcupine who’s long served as the backup singer to her boyfriend; and Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a mouse who can croon like there’s no tomorrow, but is too cocky for his own good. It’s thus up to Buster to bring all of these musical talents together and find the money that he needs to make both their and his dreams come true.
The second original animated offering from Illumination Entertainment in 2016, Sing is a jukebox musical that blends the irreverent cartoon humor that the studio has become known for (thanks to movies such as Despicable Me, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets), with an array of popular tunes and Billboard-topping hits that span the 1980s to the 2010s. At the core of the film is a sturdy, but conventional and simple story about the importance of perseverance in pursuing your passions and not losing sight of what truly matters as you chase after your dreams. Sing is a narratively slight, but energetic animated musical romp that succeeds in staying light on its toes throughout its running time.
Written and directed by Garth Jennings, Sing resembles Jennings’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film adaptation and his movie Son of Rambow in the way that it blends idiosyncratic humor and heart. Each of the film’s main players gets a subplot with a predictable, but nevertheless fully-realized payoff – and though most every one of the film’s story threads reaches a clearly telegraphed conclusion, Sing keeps things interesting by continuously hopping around from one character plotline to another. As indicated earlier, Sing doesn’t have a layered story (especially not compared to other recent animated films with all, or nearly-all, animal casts such as Zootopia and Finding Dory), but it makes up for that by maintaining a strong sense of forward momentum.
The quality of animation in Sing is similarly a notch below the recent offerings from animation powerhouses Disney and Pixar, though it’s solid in its own right. Sing benefits from gentle (animal) character designs and a pleasant (if soft) color scheme in this respect, giving rise to a playful cartoon world – if one that’s less expressive than the (zany) universes of Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets, too. The most entertaining sequences in the film are easily those in which animals offer their renditions of hit pop songs and the occasional original tune (most notably, Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Set It All Free’), giving rise to a nonstop parade of animal-related gags. Most of the jokes and musical performances that Sing throws at the wall stick when all is said and done, though they don’t advance the overarching story as well as the (generally, more impressively-staged) musical numbers from the best cartoon musicals released in recent memory.
Sing‘s animals are all based on familiar human character tropes (the moody teenager, the stay-at-home mom with career aspirations, and so on) rather than have unique three-dimensional personalities themselves, but they’re plucky and quirky enough to not just come off solely as cookie-cutter characters either. The enthusiastic performances of the film’s voice cast helps make up the difference in this respect, especially when it comes to Matthew McConaughey as the (overly) optimistic Buster Moon. Much of Buster’s never-say-die attitude and gumption is sold by McConaughey’s vocal performance more than how the character is written, making the Oscar-winner (arguably) more essential to the success of Sing than he was to the animated Kubo and the Two Strings earlier this year.
Scarlett Johansson and Reese Witherspoon deliver solid vocal performances (speaking and singing alike) of their own in Sing, though Taron Egerton and Seth MacFarlane are the bigger standouts here – as is Garth Jennings as the running joke of a character that is Karen Crawly, Buster’s elderly (and wayward) lizard assistant. Moviegoers may also recognize the distinct vocals of people like Tori Kelly, John C. Reilly, Leslie Jones and Rhea Perlman (among others) behind the supporting animal characters featured in Sing, many of whom succeed in leaving an impression even while making only brief (animated) cameos here.
Sing comfortably occupies a middle-ground on the scale of Illumination Entertainment’s animated offerings to date, as its characters and setting aren’t as memorable (or wacky) as those in Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets – yet at the same time, it boasts a sturdier narrative and structure than Minions. While the movie doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts (great star-studded cast, a writer/director with a distinct comedic voice), the final result is solid all the same. There may not be much more to Sing than a series of jokes based around animals performing pop songs, but that same light-heartedness makes for some welcome counter-programming to many of the other films playing in theaters this winter holiday season.