Film Review: Sing

A somewhat silly premise leads to a lot of hilariously quirky animated musical fun.
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There have already been plenty of animated family films filled with talking animals this year. While having those animals sing might not seem particularly cutting-edge by comparison, this new animated comedy from Illumination Entertainment—creator of those lovable (almost to the point of annoyance) yellow Minions—succeeds at pairing the simple idea of a singing competition with an oddball sense of humor that isn’t merely geared towards kids.

What might be surprising is that this animated movie comes from the mind of Garth Jennings, first known for his music-video work with Hammer + Tongs, whose feature debut was a film based on Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before receiving praise at Sundance for his 2007 comedy Son of Rambow. He’s remained fairly quiet ever since. Where Sing succeeds over the recent Trolls and other similar animated musicals is that it’s very much a comedy first, with a sense of humor that comes from a different place than other films produced by Illumination.

Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, a koala bear theatre owner who has been struggling to keep his enterprise alive. Realizing it is mere days from being repossessed by the bank, he comes up with an idea to save it: a singing contest. Buster intends to reward the winner $1,000, but a clerical error causes thousands of fliers to go out with the prize money listed as $100,000, money that Moon doesn’t have.

In the opening panoramic shot through this city of talking animals, we meet the diverse group of creatures who will become the main contestants in Buster’s competition: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a harried housewife pig with 25 piglets to care for, and there’s the shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), who also has a beautiful voice but not the nerves to perform in front of others. Gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) has a soulful voice but is being groomed by his father (Peter Serafinowicz) to take part in the family crime business, while Mike the mouse (Seth MacFarlane) is a crooked lounge singer who just sees dollar signs when he hears about the competition. Teenage porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) is fighting against “The Man” with her punk-duo partner Lance (Beck Bennett), but who sees an opportunity to earn enough money so they can make their own music. Unfortunately, Buster sees more potential in her voice than his.

All of them converge on the Moon Theatre for auditions that are almost as crazy as anything you might see on any of those televised talent shows, but most of them are driven by the prize money, especially Mike, who starts to spend it before he’s even won. While one doesn’t have to have an extensive knowledge of the competitive reality shows that have popped up over the past decade or so, it doesn’t hurt to understand why they’re so popular.

More importantly, Sing is fully focused on creating characters that the audience will embrace, regardless of their age, but also throwing them into all sorts of strange situations together. Watching Rosita interact with the porcine dance partner Gunter (Nick Kroll) she’s paired with to give her act more energy is almost as funny as the Rube Goldberg device she creates to care for her family while she’s out rehearsing. They’re both indicative of the crazy ideas Jennings brings to the mix, using these disparate characters in a very different way. This includes tons of funny visual gags like Buster’s one-eyed lizard assistant Mrs. Crawley (voiced by Jennings himself) and her constant problems with a glass eye that keeps popping out.

McConaughey, Witherspoon and Johansson take to the regimen of voice actors quite effortlessly, giving their characters quite a lot of personality. Even more impressive is Egerton’s soulful singing voice that makes Johnny’s story arc one of the more touching ones, as he tries to find a way to tell his father that he’s more interested in singing than committing big heists.

Because the animals are acting very much like we do in our day-to-day lives, Sing also feels different from other animated films. Its look is just as distinctive, as the animals fall somewhere between realism and caricature. Some of the movie’s action set-pieces stand up to any you might see in a standard Hollywood action movie, but it all comes down to whether you like the central premise or not, because as might be expected, there’s a lot of diverse singing here.

Sing may be one of those rare animated films that doesn’t deliberately kowtow to the youngest moviegoers—there’s only one gratuitous bit of bathroom humor for them—but its “Show must go on” mentality and quirky sensibilities ultimately make it a refreshing departure from the normal kiddie fare.

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