If you had a robot, and that robot’s sole function was to generate movie ideas guaranteed to be giant hits, and you held that robot’s robot-family at gunpoint and refused to let them go until the robot gave you the absolute best, most guaranteed to make money movie-idea in the history of the medium…the movie it would desperately spit out after a couple seconds’ thought would look a lot like Sing.
A varied cross-section of Hollywood’s A-list voice cuddly cartoon animals wearing people clothes while singing covers of widely adored pop songs, all rolled up in a half dozen storylines that follow the “triumphant, upbeat” musical playbook without fail.
Sing, now on DVD, Blu-ray and Vod, is a can’t miss premise that does not miss, and will assuredly provide families a pleasant evening together. I watched it with my family and we did, indeed, have a pleasant evening watching it together. It’s likable, funny, well-performed by the various vocal talents, and writer/director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Son of Rambow) hits every pre-ordained beat of his stories with aplomb.
But in a year when we’ve seen mainstream animation aim for (and achieve) not just passive pleasures but moments of real transcendence and social significance, it’s hard not to look at little askance at the Sing’s shallow treats.
Taking place in a world with anthropomorphic animals, adorable koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to keep his beloved old theater afloat despite virtually every show he’s ever mounted flopping on arrival. As a last ditch effort, he announces a city-wide singing competition with a $1000 prize. But a typographical error results in the word getting out that it’s a $100,000 prize, and soon a motley crew of misfits has arrived to try their luck at it.
Contestants include adorable pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a housewife who feels underappreciated by her husband and kids; adorable gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), whose hardscrabble father disapproves of his son’s show-biz dreams; adorable porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), whose prick (natch) boyfriend negs her talent and holds her back; adorable elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) who is held back by her innate shyness; and a slick hustler mouse, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), with a cocky edge.
If you read that paragraph and have ever seen any movie ever, you can no doubt predict how each and every one of those storylines is going to play out, and you will almost certainly be right. Jennings isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel here, so he settles for condensing each narrative down to its essential notes and speed-running through the essential points to fit a half-dozen films into one (a long one, it must be said. At two hours, Sing runs right up to the edge of wearing out its welcome).
Familiar voices crop up in the margins, including John C. Reilly, Jennifer Saunders, and Nick Kroll as Gunter, a vivacious, Germanic pig that ends up partnering with the buttoned-up Rosita and inspiring her to loosen up for their routine.
Illumination Animation has clearly positioned Gunter as the film’s designated breakout star, centering much of the marketing around him and even placing him front and center on the DVD/Blu-ray box art. Kroll is a hoot as he so reliably is, but it’s shocking how little Gunter, or any character, really has to do in the film. Sing has so many characters and so many plot threads going, the film can only spend the bare minimum amount of time on a given one before it is hustling off to the next story point.
Instead, Jennings leans HARD on his soundtrack budget, trusting that talented pipes crooning beloved songs will provide all the emotional heft needed. And, fair play, he’s not wrong. When Jennifer Hudson’s towering vocals turn “Golden Slumbers” into a gospel number, it’s hard not to feel a swell of emotion. When Kelly (a wildly talented young performer who I guess is a big YouTube person) croons through the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” you may indeed feel emotion start to rise. But these reactions have nothing to do with the film or characters, and everything to do with great performers tearing into great songs. It has all the emotional depth of a particularly well-assembled Christmas album.
The voice cast is all playing to their strengths, and it mostly works. McConaughey’s doing his affable huckster thing, Witherspoon is doing her Type A hyper-competency thing, and on and on. Of the various storylines, MacFarlane’s is an almost complete dud, with his character being an abrasive, one-note prick who becomes almost unbearably unpleasant after a couple scenes. MacFarlane’s got real pipes, and he nails his various Sinatra numbers, but if there’s one character that could be jettisoned to give others some breathing room, it’s his.
Looking back over this review, I don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh. As I said, I watched this with my parents and siblings and it played just fine. If nothing else, a ‘put on a show’ movie has to nail the show the characters put on, and the climatic performance is indeed wonderfully staged and emotionally fulfilling, closing on the exact right note to leave people humming and happy.
But it’s hard not to feel like Sing merits the participation trophy of movies. When you think about the sheer density of jokes and puns that line every frame of Zootopia, or when you consider how Moana used music to highlight the inner journeys of its characters, or about how Kubo and Two Strings is a fucking masterpiece that you sons of bitches didn’t go see and now Laika is shutting down and – sorry, I got carried away there.
Point being, we’ve seen repeatedly this year that animated films can deliver giant canvass, mainstream fun while also pushing for real technical innovation and emotional reality. Sing, for all its surface pleasures, feels like a thoroughly pleasant, but thoroughly unremarkable bit of timefiller.