Stuffed as it is with hit pop songs spanning several decades, Sing is sure to get smaller folks in the room out of their seats for spontaneous singalongs and shimmies. The adults rounding them up and rationing their popcorn? They’ll recognize stage fright when it comes to the movie singing its own tune.
Still, Sing offers the most elegantly animated effort yet from Illumination Entertainment (aka the House That Minions Built) — not only for its visual sophistication but the quasi-European and classic-Hollywood influences at play. Yes, Sing is basically Zootopia’s Got Talent, but the comic absurdity that turns a planned $1,000 prize into a purse of $100,000 mashes up Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and a moment involving a group of color-changing squids playfully evokes MGM splendor of old.
In its first act anyway, this shuffle-play jukebox musical written and directed by Garth Jennings (an anomaly to the by-creative-committee standards of most animated films), settles into a solid, modest and colorful depiction of characters struggling to find their voice in life and in song. (Jennings also gives voice to Karen, an elderly iguana with a glass eye whose each breath seems to be her last.)
But then a dreaded farty-boom-boom frenzy kicks in, not quite dragging Sing to a lowest common denominator but pulling it perilously close, and some of those auxiliary character designs suspiciously, and subversively, make it feel like Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets 1.5 (If those cats look familiar, you’re not wrong, and keep an eye on the masks those bank-robbing gorillas are wearing.)
The setup is simple but effective: An entrepreneurial koala named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) has run his once successful theater aground. Borderline destitute, Buster puts together a talent show in hopes of recruiting his next big star. When the aforementioned prize-money error draws almost the whole town to audition, Buster runs with the ruse — hoping he can somehow raise the money in time through a deal with Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Saunders), the grand dame sheep whose singing inspired Buster to pursue showbiz.
Buster’s finalists include:
- Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a domestic pig seeking respite from mothering 25 piglets, and her flamboyant German dance partner, Gunter (Nick Kroll)
- Mike (Seth MacFarlane, voice pitched up so as not to resemble Peter Griffin), whose outsized Sinatran arrogance and aptitude bursts from his tiny mouse body
- Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine punk rocker whom Buster tries to give a pop-princess makeover
- Meena (Tori Kelly), whose big voice is outdone only by her big nerves; and
- Johnny (Taron Egerton, the Kingsman hunk who showcases unexpectedly powerful pipes), a Cockney-accented gorilla whose father wants him to pump the brakes on singing and hit the gas as the getaway driver for his band of thieves.
For what it’s worth, you also get the surreal sensation of hearing McConaughey sing “Call Me Maybe.”
That’s not even counting animals given life by a murderer’s row of effusive vocal performers: John C. Reilly, Nick Offerman, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, Jennifer Hudson, Rhea Perlman and Laraine Newman.
Obviously, the more characters they cram in, the more famous songs they can sing. But it too often stalls the movie; why have two wallflowers trying to shed their shyness when one would suffice? Only Johnny and Ash’s stories resonate — the latter an indictment against stripping artistic idiosyncrasies to fit popular image, the former a familial culture clash a la Billy Elliot with a reconciliation moment that cleverly tips its hat to 1933’s King Kong. (The movie also needs more original numbers like “Set It All Free,” Ash’s fist-pumping power-pop triumph.)
Mike, meanwhile, exists solely to inject chase-antic shenanigans as he runs afoul of Russian-gangster bears. (Nice rendition of “My Way,” though, courtesy of MacFarlane’s silky songbook-standard singing.) Combined with an absurdly intense action sequence that plays like Poseidon plopped in the middle of a children’s film, this manic pushiness will pacify antsy preschoolers but also pads Sing to nearly two hours. When most animated films come out of the bridge into a final chorus, Sing vamps and vamps.
In its best moments, Sing is a family-pleasing paean to the pageantry of performance. But you’ll wish it could simply sit still a little longer on such joyous moments of song — more Baz and less spaz.