Illumination Entertainment (the “Despicable Me” series) had a decent film on its hands earlier this year with “The Secret Life of Pets”, but its shining contribution to 2016 is “Sing”, a musical embracing big dreams while poking fun at the ridiculous “American Idol” craze. The film might immediately draw comparison to “Zootopia” with its anthropomorphic characters, but “Sing” quickly distinguishes itself from that Disney hit, as well as previous Illumination projects.
Voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Buster Moon is a shifty, financially sunk but generally well-intentioned Koala trying to resuscitate the once posh theatre that his father has passed down to him. Now venue to a series of C-list clunkers, the Moon Theatre has become somewhat of a disgrace. With the bank about to foreclose on the property, Buster needs a smash to keep the lights on and the water running. What better way than a singing competition to draw a crowd? Buster scrapes together his last $1,000 for prize money, but his ancient reptilian receptionist Miss Crawley (writer/co-director Garth Jennings) inadvertently adds a couple of zeros to the flyers. This indeed brings a bevy of species to his door, thinking they’re vying for six figures: homemaker pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), whose husband and 25 kids are oblivious to her abilities and aspirations; a sarcastic Sinatra-crooning mouse (nothing at all wrong with Seth MacFarlane belting out “My Way”); a teenage punk rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson); Meena, an elephant with an exquisite voice but crippling stage fright (Tori Kelly); and Johnny (Taron Edgerton—a young actor who reveals a new skill with each film). Johnny is a hooligan Gorilla torn between singing on stage and driving the getaway car for his dad ’s gang.
Meanwhile, Buster and his slacker sheep pal Eddie (John C. Reilly) try to come up with the $100,000 before his finalists figure out that he’s a fraud. Lucky for them, Eddie’s grandma, legendary vocalist/aristocrat Nana (Jennifer Saunders) is loaded. Unlucky for them, she’s not very friendly, nor does she have any faith in Buster.
Enough about the plot, really. “Sing” is an energetic, thoughtful, funny flick with a lot of great tunes (though irritating when we only get some of them in ten second snippets). Let’s face it, most of these animated features boil down to a common moral, so it’s all about the story and production quality to distinguish one from the next. Jennings and his directing partner, veteran animator Christophe Lourdelet, do not squander their resources. In particular, Edgerton and Tori Kelly shine, performing “I’m Still Standing” and “Hallehlujua” respectively. But the whole cast offers something valuable to the movie. Jennifer Hudson has a brief number as a young Nana in the opening.
You should walk out of “Sing” with a smile on your face (or if you’re my 4-year-old, like a whirling dervish, though the movie is not nearly as fitful as “Trolls”). McConaughey’s singing is limited to about five seconds–a good call for the otherwise lovable character, who has heart to spare (McConaughey also had a terrific voice performance in “Kubo and the Two Strings” earlier this year). One highlight, literally, is a stage lit entirely by squid phosphorous, one of Buster’s more ambitious bits of improv. “Sing” has its flaws, but its an impressive upgrade for Illumination to be sure. And it still meets the fart quota.