In terms of animation, 2016 has been a standout year. The quality of features such as Kubo and the Two Strings, Finding Dory, Moana and Zootopia being evident on screen, and in their shared spoils during this awards season. On the surface they offer up entertainment for people of all ages, but build in themes and ideas that make you think, make you learn and make your feel. With this in mind, Sing is something of a throwback. Bright animation and pop culture references, but lacking any real substance or smarts. Enough to offer forgettable entertainment but frankly regressive in many ways.
Sing is set in a city inhabited by a menagerie of animals. Living side by side, going about their lives. One inhabitant is Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala obsessed with show-business, trying to realize his dream of running a theater. Despite his gusto, attendances are down, reviews of his recent shows have been poor and his money is all but gone. He comes up with a scheme to revive interest in his once grand theater, a singing competition. After initial auditions, he whittles down the contestants to five finalists. Porcine house-wife Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), looking to escape from her everyday drudgery, the young gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), who is desperate to sing rather than follow his father into a life of crime, Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine rocker with relationship troubles, Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant whose vocal talents are only exceeded by her extreme shyness, and Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a mouse who feels more at home as part of the Rat-Pack. As Buster starts to coach them all for the big show, they come to realize more about themselves against the backdrop of saving the theater.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Sing is passable entertainment. For family fun, for holding the attention of a child, Sing does exactly what it needs to. A flurry of color, images and catchy tunes. For Illumination, their track record of releases such as Despicable Me, The Lorax and Minions, rely on catchphrases and pop culture inspired comedy and Sing does little to alter their approach, formulaic and unambitious.
The press release extols how the film features over 65 hit songs, musical numbers showcasing a range of modern pop and classic rock. This alludes to the frenetic, slap-shot nature of it all. Don’t like one tune, another will be along in a minute, the same with jokes. The quickfire rate means something will draw a wry smile, but the success rate is poor. The one scene that actually shows a little wit and emotional undercurrent involves a car wash; sadly this solitary sequence only highlights how devoid of inspiration the rest of the film is. A loose and barely fleshed out framework of a plot serves merely for the musical numbers to hang off.
Had Sing been released 10 years ago, it may have seemed fresher, but after a decade of reality TV saturating the schedules, it already feels stale, compounded by its lack of a clear message. The main theme, of supporting the arts, is undercut by the introduction of a soulless talent competition, with entrants more interested in the cash prize than their craft, following their greed rather than their dreams, at least initially. Equally egregious is how paper thin the city and its inhabitants are. A city populated by animals, sound familiar? Zootopia showcased a society, a place where consideration was taken of each species size and nature to craft both architecture and wit. Sing‘s world is a bland recreation of our own with animals dropped in. While Zootopia takes a nuanced look at stereotypes to blow them apart, Sing embraces them in the name of cheap laughs, from giggling schoolgirls portrayed as Japanese squirrels or the old London gangster trope with a gang of cockney-sounding gorillas. It’s a lazy way to give the impression of creating a character.
While the cast imbue some personality into their characters with their vocal work, less could be said for the writing. Paper thin characters each have their own rather simple plot lines, with little cross-over. The lack of ambition in the film’s narrative structure is frankly offensive to a child’s intelligence. It’s largely a mismatch of derivative, manufactured pop songs. Some work, others seem an ill fit to the scene or characters. That director Garth Jennings can craft something as delightful as this, as well as the wonderful Son of Rambow and the entertaining (if severely flawed) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and then turn in a film this uninspired and backward boggles the mind.
If your idea of a perfect hour of television is American Idol, you’ll find aplenty to enjoy in Sing. If you prefer something a little more considered and less commercial, then you’ll find little of value here, a film unlikely to linger long in your mind on the journey home from the theater, let along weeks, months or years afterwards. We’re in a post-Pixar era where animators have had to elevate their game, where story and character development take a front seat. In this regard, Sing feels like a relic, a type of cheap, disposable entertainment that just isn’t enough anymore.
Sing is relased on December 21st, 2016