2016 saw a bountiful harvest of animal-centric movies with Illumination’s singing competition-inspired Sing closing out the show. From Garth Jennings and the creators of Despicable Me (and the equally despicable minions spin off), Sing follows a dapper Koala’s dreams to own the world of show biz. Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) fell in love with theater young, but as an adult, he’s plagued with debts and threatened with repossession of his beloved theater. Buster throws his weight behind a last-ditch effort to save his dreams by putting on a singing competition. After his assistant, an elderly, one-eyed lizard named Miss Crawley (Garth Jennings) accidentally establishes $100,000 as the prize money, an overwhelming amount of contestants show up and Buster scrambles to find the money in time.
Mostly the movie is standard feel-good family entertainment without much memorable content. The first half of the movie relies on charming physical comedy to keep audiences engaged (Miss Crawley’s glass eye popping out constantly is consistently hilarious), but primarily features rather thin, mechanical set up. We are thrust behind Buster’s ambitions while never really given the reason to believe he deserves to achieve his goals besides that he really really wants them. We are shown our contestants living their unfulfilling lives in a rather routine way. We already know the contestants whose backstories we see are the contestants who are going to make it onto the show; we’ve all seen American Idol.
The housewife with pipes of gold Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) needs to get her juice back after a life taking care of her 25 piglets and a businesspig husband who doesn’t even seem to notice her. Meena (Tori Kelly), a teen elephant pressured by her grandfather to take advantage of her talent, sabotages herself with her own anxiety. A scheming city rat by the name of Mike (Seth MacFarlane) seeks nothing but the prize money so he can live the life of luxury he’s always wanted. Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a gorilla caught up in the family gang business with a natural talent that his father doesn’t want him to express. And the self-forged rock star porcupine Ash (Scarlet Johansson) struggles to find her own voice after escaping beneath her deadbeat boyfriend’s controlling thumb.
Unfortunately for Sing, the cast of characters isn’t enough to make a truly great movie. We all liked Zootopia, but Sing fails to deliver on the advanced animation, thorough world-building, and (most importantly?) clever animal puns. And of course American Idol has its place in America’s heart–but it’s hard to root for any the characters when only the storylines of Rosita, Johnny, and Ash really provide any serious emotional catharsis (sorry, Meena), and even they are based in tropes that pull through only thanks to some sensitive effort on the part of the writers.
Beginning with the epic destruction of the theater, the movie picks up some speed. To impress potential investor and his personal hero Nana (Jennifer Saunders), Buster rebuilds the theater into a giant fish tank, using bio-luminescent squid to light the stage. But when Mike’s bear-mafia enemies come to steal Buster’s non-existent prize money, they crack the glass and the theater shatters and floods. This spectacle has slick animated camera work and heightens the emotional stakes as all of our heroes nearly drown until the walls bursts and they’re swept soaking wet and coughing into the street. At this point, Rosita’s family has suffered a catastrophic few days without her, Ash has lost her boyfriend and bandmate to another female porcupine, and Johnny has landed his father and brothers in jail. Meena has disappointed her family, and Buster is the laughing stock of the town.
After some humdrum fodder about the contestants trying to get Buster back on his feet (none of them are angry with him for lying to them and nearly killing them, for whatever reason), our band of misfits builds a stage atop the ruins of the old theater and puts on a final concert despite the devastation. Here, the movie cashes all of the checks it wrote for itself in the boring beginning: Johnny’s father sees his son belting on the prison TV and breaks out to be with him, police helicopters hot on his trail; as Mike takes the stage, his mouse girlfriend jumps in a human-sized car (which would be clearly impossible for a mouse to drive–whatever) and races to cut off the mafia bears who are out to kill him; when Meena finally has her moment in the spotlight, she quite literally brings the house down with her confidence and everyone goes absolutely crazy for it.
Though Sing ultimately ends on this high note with our heroes singing their little hearts out, it falls flat in so many places it’s hard to say this is going to be a classic the way many holiday movies are. This movie relies on its conceit of animals-in-human-spaces to make it funny and charming for kids, but it fails to take advantage of this demonstration with any meaningful worldbuilding (the characters are, literally, just animals in human apartments, clubs, homes, and theaters) or comedic relief (any animated person or thing could have their glass eye pop out continuously; any animated person or thing could struggle with the short/tall dichotomy that gives humor to Buster and Meena’s interactions).
The characters themselves cause the movie to take an unfortunate hit. Buster Moon is an underdeveloped lead whose backstory is impossible to buy given that we’re never actually allowed to witness it. When he does have moments that are supposed to be tough and heartbreaking, the comedy is layered on so thickly that the scenes become distasteful rather than meaningful, such as the car wash scene (yes, I say this despite the uproarious laughter it got from the kids sitting behind me).
Most of the ensemble’s heartwarming moments are still somewhat trite, with not enough exceptions–at one point we are supposed to believe that Mike is moved to tears by Meena overcoming her anxiety during her performance, even though Meena’s performance is only a shadow of earlier center-stage moments for her character and Mike has zero semblance of a redemption arc from which this feeling could have come and acts out selfishly and rudely for the entirety of the movie. Meena herself is unfortunately relied upon for emotional catharsis, but it doesn’t hit as heartwarming as it’s supposed to, and her shift from backstage-basket-case to total rock star is abrupt.
The music, is, naturally, this movie’s saving grace. Classic songs from all over music history pop up all over the movie, expertly used for dramatic effect. Jojo Villanueva won the Outstanding Music Supervision award from Hollywood Music in Media Awards in November for this work. I guess this is appropriate, given that the feel-good message of the movie rests almost entirely in the assumption that everyone–no matter what size or species–has a voice that deserves to sing.