‘Sing’ is about as good as a movie about a bunch of cute CGI animals hosting a singing competition could possibly be. This is base level animated family comedy stuff, filled with celebrity voice acting and more pop culture references than the movie’s IMDb page could possibly handle.
The emotional arcs are all pretty obvious. The moral is simple. The colors are bright. The goals are entirely commercial. And yet, somehow, it works. The movie is genuinely funny, and does absolutely everything that it’s supposed to do without ever claiming to be more than broad entertainment. If all cutie-pie animated time-wasters were this good, no one would complain about there being so many.
This tale of show business woe begins with a broken dreamer who long ago gave up on the dreams that once defined him. That dreamer is a koala named Buster Moon, voiced by Matthew McConaughey without a hint of his usual Southern drawl. He owns a theater that has housed one failure after the next and he’s about to lose it to the bank. Desperate for a success, he decides to host a singing competition, and a misprinted poster suggests that the prize money will total $100,000. As a result, way too many singing animals show up for the purposes of a comedic audition montage. Eventually, a group is assembled including Seth MacFarlane’s crooning mouse, Reese Witherspoon’s piggy housewife, Nick Kroll’s piggy lunatic, Tori Kelly’s nervous elephant with a big voice, Scarlett Johansson’s rocker porcupine, and Taron Egerton’s gorilla from the wrong side of the tracks. You know, the usual ragtag gang of misfits who couldn’t possibly come together to put on a magical show that everyone remembers, right? Sure. That couldn’t ever happen. Not with these goofballs.
This is pretty simple stuff. In fact, the biggest surprise is that there hasn’t been an animated animal comedy with this exact premise before. (It has mid-2000s written all over it.). Thankfully, we’re getting it from writer/co-director Garth Jennings. The British director hasn’t done animation before. He worked his way up through commercials and music videos like any good ’90s boy and then made it into the movies with the underrated ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and the goddamn delightful ‘Son of Rambow’. It’s been way too long since Jennings made a movie and no one ever could have expected his next would be a kids’ cartoon. That gives the movie an uncommon sense of style and humor. Animated movies always look pretty because they’re so expensive, but they’re rarely this imaginatively cinematic. Jennings runs wild creating set-pieces impossible in live action. He makes the movie hum along with style and charm. It’s very sincere and goofy. You can’t take it seriously and the silliness can feel intoxicating (with a dash of British sarcasm about the Hollywood fantasy).
The character designs are all pretty stock for this sort of thing, mostly glossy anthropomorphized animals with just enough personality to be distinct visually. However, the characters are all memorably goofy despite being simple. Jennings and his talented crop of voice actors create distinct beings of various types, sizes and purposes. McConaughey disappears into an almost unrecognizable vocal performance completely unlike anything he’s ever done, and the guy clearly relished that opportunity. Seth MacFarlane adds some attitude along with those standard ballads he insists on singing for reasons best known to himself. Witherspoon and Johansson commit with their full hearts to characters that are the emotional backbone of the piece. Even the underwritten roles get some nice performances. The whole thing has a lot of heart and plenty of laughs. Hell, even the parade of pop music favorites paraded out for easy nostalgia all hit the right buttons. This thing is a charmer.
All that said, ‘Sing’ is way too long and overwhelmed by side stories that aren’t nearly as compelling as Jennings seems to think. The movie always aims squarely at the middlebrow. That’s appealingly unapologetic and it’s nice that no one had any unnecessary pretentions. However, Jennings has also delivered a distinctly indistinct bit of rousing entertainment. It’s quite fun and beautifully made, but in the service of delivering exactly the type of animated family film that’s usually done without all these talented bells and whistles.
It’s important not to expect anything particularly special out of ‘Sing’. The flick doesn’t break any rules, but it delivers the goods in a manner that so many of these sorts of movies fail miserably at. That’s something. At least you’ll know that you’ll get exactly the type of breezy fun that you’ve been promised, done about as well as possible. Just don’t expect any Pixar or Disney magic along the way.