'Sing': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson are among the many stars lending their vocal cords to 'Sing,' an animated musical from the people who brought us 'Despicable Me' and 'The Secret Life of Pets.'

Do you remember the scene at the very end of animation studio Illumination’s Despicable Me where Gru’s adopted daughters manage to persuade their new dad to come up on stage during their ballet recital and they all boogie together to the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” with the minions? And Gru busts out the most amazing moves, and it’s all so perfectly animated, every hip shake and arched eyebrow calibrated down to the tiniest cartoon muscle, it draws tears? Well, Sing pulls off that trick for around 20 minutes straight in its last act, producing pure, sappy joy with a string of air-punching, applause-coaxing performances from nearly every main character as they put on a show right there, in a nearly derelict theater with a soundtrack album’s worth of crowd-pleasing tunes. It’s as corny as the syrup tank at a candy factory, but it works, and it will undoubtedly ensure enthusiastic enough word-of-mouth to keep this in cinemas long into the new year after it opens Dec. 21 in the U.S. and then rolls out worldwide.  

That said, and sorry to be a buzzkill, but it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t achieve that same high standard. Illumination’s latest plays to the company’s strengths, with inventive character and background design, hyper-rendered animation that pushes the technology envelope, especially in the realm of lighting and cute sight gags. But just as with, for example, The Secret Life of Pets or Minions (and let’s not even go there with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), storytelling remains the outfit’s weak spot.  

It might be conjectured that the powers-that-be are aware of this and that might be one reason why British live-action writer-director Garth Jennings, who made the delightful homage to low-budget filmmaking Son of Rambow, was hired to oversee this. But the fit isn’t quite perfect, and while there’s much to admire about the script, not least the fact that it’s an original concept in a sea of remakes, reimaginings and reboots, it doesn’t entirely gel. Maybe the problem is that at this point in 2016, the whole talent-show format that has so dominated television for the last 10 years or so finally feels exhausted and dreary.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t quite help Sing’s case that, so soon after Disney’s Zootopia, it unfolds in a world of bipedal talking animals living in another sprawling city. Sure, there have been articulate critters ever since Mickey Mouse started whistling and Betty Boop had long ears suggestive of her spaniel heritage, although the trope had fallen out of favor of late. Part of what made Zootopia effective was the way it not only revived the idea but also made the harmony — or lack thereof  in a multispecies society an integral part of the plot.

By way of contrast, in Sing there’s no reason within the story for one of its major characters, Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), to be a koala except that it means he’s cute. Also, his size serves well for an admittedly very funny car-wash gag halfway through. But he’s not even Australian. Buster is just another American-accented marsupial with a passion for showbiz, whose inciting idea to put on a talent show brings together the disparate characters that make up the roster talent assembled here. Unluckily for Buster, a typing mistake made by his faithful one-eyed lizard secretary and factotum Miss Crawl (voiced by Jennings himself) mistakenly reports the prize will be $100,000, not the $1,000 Buster has in his savings bank.

The money certainly motivates Mike, a mouse on the hustle whose abrasive, jerky quality is only enhanced by the fact he’s voiced by Seth MacFarlane. But money is only part of the lure for most of the other major characters, an assortment of mammalian hopefuls that includes: Rosita, a put-upon porcine mom of 25 (Reese Witherspoon); a teenage British gorilla (Taron Egerton) who doesn’t really want to follow his father (Peter Serafinowicz) into the family’s bank-robbing business; spiky porcupine punk Ash (Scarlett Johansson), whose acceptance onto the show jeopardizes her relationship with her rejected boyfriend (Beck Bennett); and Meena (Tori Kelly), the painfully shy elephant at the back of the room who is too scared to sing in front of others and ends up working as a stagehand for Buster.

With such a stellar cast on hand (even supporting and minor parts are voiced by the likes of Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Rhea Perlman and John C. Reilly, with singing support from the likes of Jennifer Hudson), it’s no surprise that Sing is a treat for both the ears and eyes. Apparently, the cast all sang their songs themselves, with surprisingly impressive results, although who knows how much auto-tuning went into creating the finished soundtrack. Still, while it’s hardly a surprise to hear how well widely known quantities like Witherspoon and MacFarlane hit the high notes with covers of “Shake It Off” and “My Way,” respectively, those less familiar with Johansson’s parallel career as a chanteuse have a treat in store on hearing what she can do with an original song, “Set It All Free,” written for the film by producer-composer Dave Bassett. Likewise, Egerton’s boy-band balladeering represents another pleasant surprise.

One can only speculate at how many billable hours went toward intellectual-property lawyers for clearing the rights to the 65 different songs that are featured here. Some are merely snatches and phrases (hello pan-pipe theme from Once Upon a Time in America) which might have been free under the terms of fair use, but still, the music alone must have represented a big chunk of the budget, along with the above-the-line talent’s fees and the computing costs that went into rendering the film's many dazzling traveling shots.  

Distributor: Universal
Production companies: An Illumination presentation

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, Nick Offerman, Beck Bennett
Director-screenwriter: Garth Jennings
Co-director: Christophe Lourdelet
Animation directors: Patrick Delage, Pierre Leduc
Producers: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy
Production and character designer: Eric Guillon
Editor: Gregory Perler
Music: Joby Talbot
Executive music producer: Harvey Mason Jr.
Music supervisor: Jojo Villanueva
Computer graphics supervisor: Boris Jacq
Casting: Allison Jones

Rated PG, 110 minutes

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