Sing is an animated musical that is coming out at quite a busy time for animated musicals, and musicals in general. In a fall that has already brought the musical stylings of Trolls and Moana, and will soon bring the Oscar favorited music of La La Land, Sing brings the genre's big fall season full circle.
While Moana and La La Land revolve around original music, Sing goes into the time honored formula of having A-list voice actors mostly sing pop songs, like Trolls did in the fall's first musical. Perhaps both lack the higher ambitions of Moana and La La Land, but for Sing's part, it still knows how to rouse up an audience to sing and cheer along, and right in the nick of time too.
The famed Moon theater is falling apart under the management of koala bear Buster Moon, whose last best idea to get back on top is to host a singing competition for the whole town. Everyone does indeed come by to audition, but mostly because flyers mistakenly advertise a $100,000 cash prize that Buster can in no way afford. Nonetheless, overworked pig housewife Rosita, her flamboyant partner Gunter, unwillingly criminal gorilla Johnny, shy elephant Meena, arrogant mouse crooner Mike, artsy teenage porcupine Ash and more rise up to unlock their talents, while Buster just tries to afford to show them in time.
Illumination Entertainment has a much easier time affording this, as the animation studio built by Minions aims for its second non-Minion hit of 2016 after The Secret Life of Pets. At the least, Illumination is beginning to branch out beyond the Minons/Despicable Me brand, with a slightly less hyperactive and wacky tone for Sing by comparison. There isn't even a Minions reference or Easter Egg in the film itself, although the comically small bunny masks for the less than incognito gorilla thieves do resemble evil Pets rabbit Snowball.
Instead of relying on Minions-style antics, Sing mainly plays a game of Name That Tune, with an endless array of covers for pop favorites and other familiar songs. The likes of Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Stevie Wonder, and even Frank Sinatra and the late Leonard Cohen are among the dozens whose work is borrowed at one time or another. It is certainly a wide enough reach for audience members of all ages to recognize and sing along to at various points.
Yet aside from a few audition montages, there aren't many full on performances in the first half of Sing. To pass the time, the movie goes through story lines and character architypes even more time honored, and perhaps even more cliche, than the songs themselves. Leaving the musical inspiration aside, there are only intermittent bits of comedic inspiration to go along with it, which can cause a bit of impatience.
The character that gets the most laughs in the meantime isn't one of the performers, but rather Buster's glassy-eyed and somewhat bumbling lizard assistant Ms. Crawly, voiced by writer/director Garth Jennings himself. Still, there is also a novelty in Matthew McConaughey going in a more bright and optimistic tone than usual as Buster, and in hearing him perform "Call Me Maybe" in his only brief musical bit. In addition, Rosita's contraption to keep her hyper children and oblivious husband fed and unaware she's gone is a stroke of genius.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sing really flips the switch when the music picks up. In fact, it actually flips it a little earlier than that, once the requisite big second act disaster hits and both Buster and the performers redefine their reasons to put on a show. Yet when that show is ready, Jennings and Illumination as a whole make it so tailor made for audiences, they might as well flash applause signs in theaters after every performance, although viewers will likely do just fine clapping on their own.
It may well be manipulative and have tactics straight out of Broadway, but this is where Sing will earn its inevitable distinction as a crowd pleaser, and send everyone out singing and humming. Jennings and Illumination are playing the long game on this one, and they indeed have the payoff to back it up. Even taking their time in the first half eventually pays off, since it sets up the actual emotional payoff of everyone’s big numbers in the second half.
Of course, pulling those numbers off also requires A-listers and others who can actually sing. Reese Witherspoon already won an Oscar singing as June Carter Cash, although she goes in a more pop direction as Rosita. Seth MacFarlane is also certainly ideal in more ways than one as a Sinatra-style crooner who is also the most obnoxious contestant. They even have two former American Idol contestants who were cut early and went onto bigger things anyway, with Tori Kelly making her film debut as the shy elephant with the secretly stunning voice, and Jennifer Hudson covering the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” off camera in the second half.
The sole original song used in the competition actually goes to Scarlett Johansson, in her second song for an animated film this year after performing in the end credits of The Jungle Book. But while all these actors have already sung in one way or another before, Taron Egerton is more of a first-timer on-screen as Johnny, making it all the more noteworthy.
Through all these voices and their routines, Sing recovers from a mere serviceable first half to a show stopping second. Perhaps it shouldn’t completely erase the less exciting and original set up, and how it shows Illumination still has a ways to go to catch up to Disney and Pixar’s storytelling innovation.
Even so, Illumination has settled on big, shiny and flashy things like minions and pets to build its brand so far, and this time they happen to do it through song. By those standards, this is a step forward for the studio in doing something different and eventually pulling it off, even if other animated films, musicals and animated musicals have gone much further this fall alone.
The combination of a slow start and big finish brings Sing to an official 6 on the TMN.com scale, yet it is closer to a 6.5 by the end. Everyone else can make their own musical scale for Sing starting on Dec. 21.