This has been a golden year for movies featuring anthropomorphized characters.
This has been a golden year for movies featuring anthropomorphized characters, as four of 2016’s top five films (in terms of worldwide gross) feature talking animals. With this in mind, writer-director Garth Jennings setting his new animated film, Sing, in a city of talking wildlife makes complete sense from a business perspective, especially when you consider that the film ups the pop culture ante by centering its plot around an “American Idol”-style singing competition. And while Sing delivers a crowd-pleasing package complete with cute animals, excellent musical numbers and strong performances from a top-notch cast, its unimaginative setting, predictable plot and sluggish pacing hold it back from reaching the same heights as rivals like Zootopia.
Sing follows a nearly bankrupt, theater-owning koala named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Down to his last $1,000, Buster decides to host a singing competition in a last-ditch attempt to save his theater from being repossessed by the bank. Unfortunately, his daffy assistant, elderly iguana Miss Crawly (Jennings), mistypes the flyer and lists the prize as $100,000, which brings nearly every animal in the city to Moon’s theater for auditions.
The wildly outlandish audition montage is one of Sing’s highlights, and it makes you wish that Jennings would have gone more over-the-top with the plot and characters, because the film works best when it lets loose. From there, Buster picks a group of finalists, a group which shifts a bit but ends up as bored-housewife pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), dance floor-loving disco pig Gunter (Nick Kroll), grumpy busking mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane), heartbroken porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), misunderstood gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) and talented but terrified elephant Meena (Tori Kelly).
While stringing along his practicing finalists, Buster also attempts to get financing from his best friend’s grandmother, a famous singing llama named Nana Noodleman (voiced by Jennifer Saunders and by Jennifer Hudson in flashback). When that goes horribly wrong and the singers discover Buster’s duplicity, everything is thrown into disarray until the finalists finally decide to go on with the show, resulting in a final performance from each of them. Though the middle portion of the film drags, each character is given a full song in a wildly entertaining finale.
The speaking and singing performances remain spectacular throughout, with standouts being Egerton’s delivery of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” and Saunders’ delightfully bitter Nana. Outside of Saunders’ few lines and a hilarious carwash scene featuring Buster and his best friend, Eddie (John C. Reilly), the musical performances are the reason to watch Sing. The only performer that feels at all miscast is Kelly, whose Meena is expected to literally blow the roof off the theater in her big musical moment. Kelly’s voice is wonderful, but as a light, soubrette soprano she doesn’t have the boom one would expect for the role. This is particularly conspicuous when the hurricane-voiced Hudson is left with very little to do other than brief opening and closing snippets.
Still, the musical portions of Sing are joyful and engaging. And while they elevate the film as a whole, the sections of song and dance don’t completely wash away the mediocre flavor of some of the film’s other elements. The worst offender is the setting, a bland, animal version of San Francisco that feels particularly underwhelming when compared to the dazzling city of Zootopia or Kung Fu Panda’s mythic China. The predictable and occasionally slow plot is also disappointing, particularly for a film that does so well when it embraces its wacky side.
Though Sing is squeaky-clean and family-friendly, some of the humor involving the elderly Miss Crawly and her false eye is, at best, tacky and, at worst, offensive. And since white people have made fools of themselves for years by offensively comparing other races to certain types of animals, it really falls upon writers to either completely avoid triggering any painful comparisons or to address them in a new and sensitive way. Sing does neither, and while none of its animal portrayals are outright offensive, the film swerves dangerously close, particularly with its representation of a group of J-Pop singing red pandas.
What audiences will and should remember about Sing are its wildly entertaining musical numbers, each imbued with humor, talent and heart by an amazing cast. Too bad the filmmakers weren’t as imaginative with the plot and setting as they were with the music.