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.
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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.