I was wrong about Sing. The trailers made it look like a simple, 90-minute, 2.5-star, animated version of The Voice featuring anthropomorphic beasts, but it actually has a few unique plot twists in store. They just don't help. The laughs are low, the minutes drag on and the lessons are lame. 1 out of 5.
Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a koala among an unexplained city of walking, talking animals who fell in love with theater as a young man. His dad bought him the theater he loved and... Buster ran it into the ground. Other characters don't mince words about Buster's record of failed productions, but those weren't for a lack of optimism. We're a little fuzzy on the business details or how much time has passed and how Buster still owns the place (the bank is about to foreclose and he hasn't paid the stage hands from the last production), but his big plan is to... wait for it... put on one big talent show to save the theater (because? Why would we be sad if this place closed?). So if The Muppets recently covered this plot much better, and if Zootopia recently set the bar for the animal civilization story, what's left? Well... singing, animals... singing animals! So why does it take 100 minutes to get to that?
There is some legitimate singing talent on display, most notably from Taron Egerton and Tori Kelly. Some of the character stories and relationships might have mattered more had there not been so many stories to get to. Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon) is an overwhelmed housewife who apparently only needed to see a flyer about a $100,000 singing competition to bring out mad engineering skills and confidence. Johnny the gorilla (Egerton) landed his dad and friends in prison, but it's okay because he can sing, and Dad will see it, and reclaim Johnny as his son. The movie's overly long already, but with a little more time and care, these storylines might have gone somewhere. Heck, by contrast, a couple minor storylines were flat abandoned.
You know how each season of American Idol featured outtakes and bad singers on purpose because they were nearly as entertaining as those who would go on to win golden tickets? Sing tries a version of that, but it's a troubled montage that neither generates laughs nor sticks with any song/contestant long enough (it's a similar issue which plagued previous Illumination Entertainment installment Secret Life of Pets - what you saw in the trailer and assumed was an edited sampling of an interesting concept literally runs here as its own segment). Director Garth Jennings voices the only character to get laughs in our screening - Miss Crawly, Moon's lizard assistant. And give Jennings some credit: he tried to go against formula and expectation with some twists and turns to the story, he just failed. This film could have done better sticking to what it looked like: American Idol for animated animals.
I also must point out that one of the competitors is just flat-out unlikeable. Mike the mouse, voiced by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane as a Sinatra-style crooner, insults everyone (to no laughs), gambles, cheats, gets in trouble with unsavory gangsters, and is otherwise generally unpleasant. Does he change? Well, he shows back up to sing "My Way" at the climax, but that's about the extent of his transformation.
There's one valuable piece of advice in Sing, and that is to do what you love, fear be darned. As Buster explains to his most talented but most shy performer, "Do what you love, because then you'll be doing it and you won't be afraid once you've started." Of course, Moon needs to take a little of his own advice, as he shields himself from facing his own unpleasant realities. One of the movie's twists is that we're expecting a singing competition, but when things go south, one-time competitors become never-give-up teammates instead (decent lesson; only thing is, my kids came to see the competition). A character talks twice of being at 'rock bottom'; obviously the first time he wasn't quite there. He is by the second utterance, and at that point he goes to work (as a furry koala he could run a car wash where he's the loofah, see) and friends rally around him. Characters learn that money can only motivate us so far, but that singing is something that comes from within and must be done whether for money or not. Speaking of money, be sure to discuss the ease with which a credit card company gives Mike a high-ceiling card - there are nearly no repurcussions to Mike's lie about the money he's about to come into, or the debt he incurs.
RECOMMENDED FOR: Well, it's obviously aimed at families and lovers of today's music and singing competitions, but honestly, I'm just not sure. The positive ratings Sing has received (currently 72% on RottenTomatoes; 4 out of 5 on PluggedIn) have me questioning many things. It takes too long to get to the really good singing, and there's nothing special about the animation, the characters or the moral. As my 11-year-old daughter, who had begged to see this, said afterwards, "Definitely a renter; I didn't even have a favorite character."
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of groundbreaking animation, or Matthew McConaughey - it's kind of painful to hear him struggle to stay in optimistic koala voice for nearly two hours. As my 13-year-old son said afterwards, "Even worse than Nine Lives, and that gets a half star. What was the point?"
Sing, directed by Garth Jennings, opened in theaters December 21, 2016; available for home viewing March 21, 2017. It runs 108 minutes and stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Garth Jennings and Jennifer Saunders. Watch the trailer for Sing here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: December 20, 2016