Film Review: Sing

Illumination's latest charms its way ahead of your average, busy family flick

The cow goes “moo.”

The dog goes “woof.”

And the gorilla goes “I’m still standing!” in the style of Elton John, while slamming the piano.

Yes, the kid gloves are probably staying on with this one. Sing is a slickly commercial feel-good film for all ages with a good nature and some solid beats to spare. Cute animal creations for the kids. Jukebox jubilation for the adults. It’s designed for mass appeal and will probably make hundreds of millions of dollars, and you know what? I just don’t care. I smiled, laughed, and probably even shimmied my elbows like a mom from time to time. Because despite what the aggressive advertising might lead you to believe, Sing has some actual enthusiasm for its material, thanks in no small part to its game cast, goofy critters, and good-vibes writing and direction from Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) and Christophe Lourdelet.

Meet Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), koala and proprietor of a failing theater. Classic huckster. He’s a down-and-out Cary Grant type, avoiding bills, calls, and pretty much all the realities of minding a business. It’s a testament to McConaughey’s vocal turn that this koala kid radiates the soul of popular music. He’s big-eyed and smiling, and when you see him inspired by a classical rendition of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” as a small child, something sticks. Moon declares music his first love. With its purple curtain majesty, a sense of awe, and Jennifer Hudson’s lush vocals giving John and Paul some heft through a singing Rita Moreno-like sheep, the film’s hook is right there in the opening moments.

Despite its snappier instincts, at its core Sing is about the strange obsessions and loves we foster for music. Buster is quite seriously over the moon for arts and entertainment. It’s a simple love, but a true one that carries Sing’s basic outline. It’s why people watched American Idol to the end: that almost impossible desire to make something great through song. Sure, this is still a children’s film, but one with clarity in its intentions.

Broke as a joke, Moon assembles a motley crew for a last-chance singing competition in hopes of generating enough PR that his theater will be saved from the wrecking ball.

The story is well, somewhat inessential. Commercially and cohesively. Illumination proved it already this year with its paper-thin assemblage of dogs and cats with attitudes, to the tune of $360 million domestic, with The Secret Lives of Pets. To wit, Sing has a very prominent “character design” credit in the last reel. (Gotta perfect the shapes for maximum toyetics, one could guess.) But that’s a cynical read. Sing, to its credit, provides a landscape of critters with living, breathing personae. It has a mood, a love, a whatever you want to call it. But it feels honest beyond your average kid flick.

The well-designed characters are just that, and Sing’s life springs from them. Your fondness for casting depends on the viewer, but everyone has a quickly definable and amusing way about them, outside of their common wish to sing for a living. Among Moon’s lineup, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton, and he can sing decently!), the teenaged gangster gorilla looking for a way out of a life of crime. He’s a young giant with gentle pipes like Sam Smith’s. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is the pig with a litter of 25 who dreams of something beyond domesticity. Her gifts include Rube Goldberg contraptions, keeping her family together, and a solid rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” Ash (Scarlett Johansson), the teen porcupine with her heart on the line, has recently been dumped, and might be ready to poke through to the masses with her hardcore voice (at least in PG-rated terms). Seth MacFarlane is a ratty mouse/crooner looking to bank on his talents. And while mileage may vary for MacFarlane fandom and anti-fandom, his Sinatra’s pretty, pretty okay. Singer Tori Kelly is the shy elephant Meena, and Nick Kroll is the dancing German pig (you’ll get over it). We didn’t even get into John C. Reilly’s stoner sheep, but he’s fabulous as well.

Together, it’s a company of singing fools, trying their best to win the competition and cling to their aspirations, but not strictly for the money: because they dig music. And that’s a tough sell, but Jennings and Lourdelet make you forget the business and just enjoy the hits for a little while. Does the plot go about how you’d expect? Infighting, minor revelations, and a final show? Yes. But the presentation and little tweaks along the way make Sing far less grating than you’d expect. There are dozens of great moments, beats, and tunes. An Elton-set jail break. Frogs singing Van Halen’s “Jump.” A gorgeous water-filled stage with octopi providing the lights. It’s a good mix, all in all.

So call it rote. Call it early ‘80s. Call it kiddie clap-trap, but in the end, Sing pulls off a hard number: it gets you to like, even love it a little. Sing’s familiarity and simplistic assemblage are easy to ignore after a short while, as it’s such a good time regardless that quibbling over plot and anthropomorphic logics seems moot. This Moon character? He’s goin’ places. Look at him ride his bicycle to “Gimme Some Lovin’”. You can grouse over clichéd soundtrack choices. Or, you can appreciated the film’s zip and assured silliness. You begin to care for each of its creatures, big and small. You’ll want to see their big numbers, because in the land of Illumination, likability is king, and Sing has a pretty spirited roster.

Still not your jam? Hey, the exit signs should be on the left and right of your theater. Now hush, the shy elephant’s about do something nice with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”



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