Film Review: ‘Sing’

The studio responsible for 'Despicable Me' and 'The Secret Life of Pets' outdoes itself with this catchy jukebox musical.

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman, Adam Buxton, Brad Morris, Bill Farmer.

If it weren’t for the four little Minions who flex their pipes at the opening of “Sing,” you wouldn’t necessarily know that the massively entertaining jukebox musical that follows hails from the same studio that brought you “Despicable Me” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” The story of an underdog koala who concocts a singing competition as a last-ditch attempt to save his over-extended theater, “Sing” could just as easily be the work of Pixar, DreamWorks, or Walt Disney Animation Studios. (To wit, more than a few savvy parents will probably pass this off as the “Zootopia” sequel their kids have been wanting.) But for Illumination Entertainment, “Sing” is a game-changer, underscoring why company founder Chris Meledandri is the hottest name in animation today.

Both “Sing” and “Pets” sprung from original ideas hatched by Meledandri, but unlike the latter (which has earned $789 million worldwide to date), “Sing” takes place in a world entirely populated by animals. Whereas “Zootopia” cleverly delved into the dynamics of such an arrangement, “Sing” takes this interspecies arrangement for granted and wastes no time trying to explain the logistics: The story may as well be set among humans, only the characters are much cuter as critters (and yet, if there’s one area that Illumination seriously needs to improve, it’s character design).

Our protagonist is a generic-looking koala named Buster Moon, whose personality owes entirely to Matthew McConaughey, who locates the sweet spot between tireless optimist and slippery con artist in the otherwise underwritten character. At age six, Buster fell in love with musical theater, setting aside his dreams of becoming the first marsupial on the moon, and instead investing his father’s life savings in a run-down Broadway-style theater, where he accomplishes the next best thing, emceeing each performance from a shiny gold crescent suspended from the rafters. Trouble is, his choice in shows has been a disaster, and the llama who’s been lending him money at the bank is about to repossess the stage.

Like all of Illumination’s movies, “Sing” isn’t shy about recycling clichés from other animated movies, although it’s surprising that writer-director Garth Jennings’ wobbly script (which masks its shortcomings with a steady stream of jokes) ignores the most obvious one: Rather than suggesting that what Buster needs to do is put on a really personal show, it reinforces his decision to sell out and host an amateur singing competition instead. But then, we live in the era of “American Idol,” and there’s no point lecturing those who believe in the illusion of natural-born talent and instant discovery on the importance of hard work. Why write your own music when there are so many catchy, if disposable pop songs you could be covering instead? (Still, if there’s any justice, the Dave Bassett-supplied original number “Set It All Free” will be the one audiences come away singing.)

Due to a slight miscommunication with his longtime assistant, Miss Crawly (a dotty old chameleon whom Jennings voices himself), the promotional fliers offer a grand prize of $100,000 to the winner — which happens to be $99,000 more than Buster has to his name. What follows is a kid-friendly riff on Broadway’s “A Chorus Line,” in which a wildly diverse batch of naturally talented singers show up to audition, offering Jennings the chance to delve into each of their surprisingly deep personal lives. Animation allows the film to zip along at five times the pace of a live-action movie, compressing teenage relationship troubles (as experienced by Ash, Scarlett Johansson’s emotionally vulnerable porcupine), marital doldrums (Reese Witherspoon plays Rosita, an overworked pig saddled with 25 kids and an exhausted hubby), and unreasonable parental pressure (“Kingsman’s” Taron Egerton is Johnny, a gorilla forced to take a stand against his dad’s criminal lifestyle in order to follow his own dreams) into vignettes that might normally take far longer to unfold.

While there are no profound life lessons to be found in these subplots, Jennings and his cast manage to deliver a steady supply of laughs, while respecting one of Illumination’s core principles: It’s OK to be silly, which is especially true of the behavior to be found backstage, where a Teutonic attention hog (Nick Kroll, doing his best Flula Borg impression) and a group of J-pop pups threaten to steal the show. The auditions themselves are a quick-cut flurry of singer-to-song mismatch gags (three bunnies take a crack at “Baby Got Back,” a snail covers Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind”), making for a side-splitting sequence that represents a nearly unfathomable amount of work for music supervisor Jojo Villanueva and Universal’s legal team — who also had to get clearances on hits by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra (the latter crooned by Seth MacFarlane, no stranger to animation). The “Family Guy” creator has the perfect voice for Mike, a mouse with an ego big enough for an elephant, while Grammy-nominated newcomer Tori Kelly plays, Meena, a mousy pachyderm trying to work up the nerve to perform in front of a crowd.

Just when you think you’ve figured out how Buster will raise the prize money (Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Saunders split the role of retired theater diva Nana Noodleman) and who will win it, Jennings’ script takes a spectacularly unexpected turn, humbling Buster and his woolly enabler Eddie (John C. Reilly), who hilariously redeem themselves by swallowing their pride and washing cars. But the show must go on, and “Sing” launches itself into the stratosphere with a radically reconceived version of Buster’s talent contest, in which multiple subplots coalesce as each of the principal characters gets his or her moment in the spotlight, each one more impressive than the last.

Film Review: 'Sing'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2016. Running time: 108 MIN.

Production: (Animated) A Universal Pictures release and presentation, in association with Dentsu, Fuji Television Network, of a Chris Meledandri production. Producers: Meledandri, Janet Healy.

Crew: Director, writer: Garth Jennings. Co-director: Christophe Lourdelet. Camera (color, HD). Editor: Gregory Perler.

With: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman, Adam Buxton, Brad Morris, Bill Farmer.

More Film

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Javier Bardem Dune

    Javier Bardem in Talks to Play King Triton in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. Harry Styles is also in early talks to play Prince Eric. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • UglyDolls

    STX Tries to Put Flops Behind It as It Searches for Star Executive, Fresh Capital

    After a series of film flops and an aborted initial public offering, STX Entertainment is battling mounting skepticism that it can survive in an increasingly unforgiving movie business. As it hustles to find $500 million in fresh capital, the company, which operates in the red according to financial disclosures, is simultaneously hoping to attract a [...]

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

  • MPAA Logo

    Motion Picture Association of America Hires Emily Lenzner as Communications Chief

    The Motion Picture Association of America has appointed veteran public relations executive Emily Lenzner as its executive VP of global communications and public affairs. She will report to Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin and oversee the trade group’s communications team in the U.S. and internationally. Lenzner will start Aug. 1 and be based at the MPAA’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content