REVIEW: Sing [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: December 21st, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Illumination Entertainment / Universal Pictures
Director(s): Garth Jennings / Christophe Lourdelet (co-director)
Writer(s): Garth Jennings

“Don’t let fear stop you from doing the thing you love”

After helming The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow, it’s easy to forget writer/director Garth Jennings started his career as one half of music video masters Hammer & Tongs. Pair his knowledge of music with some great past examples of family-friendly aesthetics (Supergrass‘ “Pumping on Your Stereo” puppets, Blur‘s “Coffee & TV” stop-motion) and the notion he’d eventually gravitate towards a feature-length animated children’s film doesn’t seem far-fetched. In fact, the only thing about his third film that does surprise is it being his first effort without Hammer & Tongs partner/producer Nick Goldsmith at his side. Luckily for us the absence doesn’t lessen Jennings’ flair for the entertaining, humorous, or heartfelt as Sing possesses all three for some much-needed fun at the movies.

The plot circles koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) and his ambitions for theatrical greatness. Sadly his years helming a revered institution that once staged the inimitable sheep Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Hudson) have all but driven its legacy into the ground. A steady string of box office failures has the bank (Rhea Perlman‘s llama Judith) breathing down his neck and friend/son of financial benefactor Eddie (John C. Reilly) unable to bail him out. Buster’s last shot at finding creative and financial solvency is to produce a singing contest open to the public for a one thousand dollar prize. He dictates his flier to long-term iguana assistant Miss Crawly (Jennings); her senility adds two extra zeroes to the winnings. One hundred thousand dollars gets the whole city dreaming big.

There’s housewife pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) looking for a respite from her husband (Nick Offerman‘s Norman) and twenty-five piglets; Mike’s (Seth MacFarlane) narcissistic panhandling crooner of a mouse searching for fame and fortune; punk rock duo afterthought Ash (Scarlett Johansson) and her chance to let her talents shine as a solo artist; flamboyant German pig performer Gunter (Nick Kroll) searching for an audience; would-be gorilla criminal Johnny (Taron Egerton) striving to break free of his thief father’s (Peter Serafinowicz‘s Big Daddy) shadow; and meek elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) with the pipes for stardom if she could only get past her stage-fright. A trio of egomaniacal frogs, quintet of J-pop red pandas, an operatic camel, and bioluminescent squids round out a sprawling menagerie of talent, hope, and crippling fear.

Each of these potential victors has a life they must compromise in order to give their dreams a chance and it won’t be easy for any of them. Even Buster has to swallow his pride once he discovers the typo that got all these contestants at his door. Visiting Eddie’s regal grandmother Nana (now played by Jennifer Saunders) may not be the most difficult task the film constructs, but it is thematically resonate considering the character’s drive to be the best and make his now-deceased father proud. The elder moon bought his son this theater off the back (literally) of a car washing career, so Buster needs to put together the best show of his life to woo financial support from his biggest detractor in Nana.

The others’ issues deal more with personal identity and an escape from societal and cultural constraints. Rosita combats archaic ideas of wifely and motherly responsibilities; Ash fights against love’s cloud falsely justifying the putdowns and lack of support from her boyfriend; Mike desperately tries to bring out the success he feels within from an exterior of failure; Johnny wrestles against racial stereotypes and parental pressure to break a cycle of violence; and Meena uses the desire of a family (Jay Pharoah and Leslie Jones) living vicariously through her potential to be a star to conquer her fear. Every one of them has the makings of an inspirational hero for countless youngsters and adults unsure of what the future holds. They push us to do what makes us happy.

The film’s decision to give each equal screen time ultimately proves detrimental where children are concerned. Sing possesses a ton of plot to sift through and some kids in my screening grew restless towards its ambitions. Jennings introduces his players via a whirlwind opening with camera zooms capturing each in his/her natural habitat with skill. Afterwards, though, he must juggle them with normal transitions and revelations that can’t help pull our attention away a few times too many. While an extended scene with Mike fleecing three volatile bears of their money is great on its own with suspense, laughs, and an excuse to tear Buster’s fantasy down, it’s easy to forget the others in that moment. Backstage sequences of characters helping each other shine above their individual trials.

I personally loved the ambition, though, because including more characters means audience members feeling lost and adrift have more to choose from and relate to their own struggles. It also allows for an extensive soundtrack of pop and rock classics with contemporary hits to keep toes tapping without distracting from the story itself. This isn’t a musical where lyrics infer upon the action. The songs are merely performances to hint at their emotional state and provide the opportunity to succeed or fail at singing, instrumentation, or dancing to further expose their myriad vulnerabilities. And eventually, despite the specifics of their problems being uniquely personal to them, coming together in this universal goal of entertaining the masses helps them find the strength to excel against all odds.

So take the PG-rating to heart as far as leaving the youngest of your clan home so the older ones can enjoy the nuance of plot progression and metaphor above bright colors, poppy melodies, and personified animals. If not you may end up like a couple parents who recused themselves with crying children. In contrast there were more than a few eight-year olds and older investing in the plights of these characters to comprehend their message of perseverance, hard work, and embracing that which your heart and soul craves. Jennings infuses enough goofiness with Miss Crawly’s glass eye and Eddie’s under-achieving to temper the heartstring moments of personal pride and thus entertain while educating. So despite it being somewhat slight on the surface, there’s enough substance to be worthwhile.

[1] Academy Award® winner MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY as dapper koala Buster Moon and writer/director GARTH JENNINGS as elderly lizard Miss Crawly greet the contestants in the event film “Sing,” from Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures. Photo Credit: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] TARON EGERTON is Johnny, a young gangster gorilla looking to break free of his family’s felonies, in the event film “Sing,” from Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures. Photo Credit: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] NICK KROLL voices boisterous German pig Gunter and Academy Award® winner REESE WITHERSPOON voices overtaxed mother Rosita in the event film “Sing,” from Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures. Photo Credit: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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