Illumination Entertainment’s still the new kid on the block, but more and more they’re showing that they have the guts to fit in with the older names in animation. Chris Meledandri’s company has delivered another par for the course with Sing, an animated family musical. Directed and written by Garth Jennings, known for adapting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005, and joined by Christophe Lourdelet in his own debut as co-director, Sing is a delightful holiday treat that’ll leave you with good vibes.
The film centers around Buster Moon, a koala voiced by Matthew McConaughey who’s living the dream of owning his own theater. The problem is, his dream’s piled up with debt that he cannot pay back. None of the shows he’s produced have been successful in any regard, and he needs a big hit to get back on his feet. His bright idea: host a singing competition that’ll get everyone’s attention. At the same time we follow a pig, a porcupine, a gorilla, a mouse and an elephant as their lives are changed by their participation in the show. Sing ties all their stories into an hour and 48 minutes, culminating of course in the big performance.
Very early on, I had some concerns about the film’s structure. We’re introduced to Buster and his quandary, the title shows, and it feels like we’re about to get the first steps of the movie… but then the camera flies across the city to show us one of our other characters, Johnny the gorilla. We get about a minute of screentime, and things are going into an upswing when we’re whisked away again! As a result, the first 10 or so minutes feels jarring. I feared that the problem would persist throughout the movie. However, things began to calm down and settle in afterwards, and it actually came together pretty coherently. The plot can be predictable and has some familiar tropes, including the infamous “liar revealed” element. It ends the way you’d expect. Yet, it does take some unusual turns to get to that endpoint, which I appreciate. The strongest aspect of the story, though, would be in the characters.
Each of the six main characters in Sing has their own arc, and they’re all different: one character’s struggling with finding the confidence to perform, another character grapples with finding her identity through her art, another has to choose between pursuing his dream as a singer and pleasing his father by joining his gang, and so on. They all have different personalities, and they play off each other very well. As I said before, I felt worried about the movie trying to juggle six different plot threads, and it may have been a little better focused with fewer. At the same time though, none of them are dropped. Ice Age: Collision Course suffered this problem, with so much going on that it just turned into a frantic mess of nothingness. But in Sing, all the arcs intersect with Buster Moon’s, and so the movie remembers to keep going forward. They all have a clear resolution that brings satisfaction.
Even more important, though, is that we like these characters. Buster Moon wants to save the theater he loves, out of not just a passion for the arts but also as a tribute to his father who worked 30 years in a carwash to help him buy it in the first place. How can you not feel something for this guy? Our five other main characters have similar stories. Reese Witherspoon plays a pig named Rosita, a housewife with 25 little ones who feels trapped at home: nobody really takes her singing talents seriously. She cares for her family, but we want her to break out and live her dream too. Rosita manages to jerry-rig a contraption that does all her chores for her, but she’s still trapped in a mindset that demands order and precision. She needs to learn to break loose and live life with a little more excitement, and she does. In the same way, our four other radial characters follow their arcs and end up in a different, better place at the end of the movie than they were in the beginning, and we the audience are happy for them. One of the main issues I had with The Secret Life of Pets earlier this year is that the two main characters were quickly made unlikable at the beginning of the movie, and it was hard to invest in their peril from there on out. Sing instead gives us some delightful characters, and while there are a lot they all have room to breathe and develop.
As for the animation, Illumination does a great job bringing these characters to life. The visuals aren’t quite as stunning as Disney or Pixar — they only have half the budget, after all. That doesn’t mean Sing bores the eyes though. The camera moves around with just the right dynamics, giving exciting sweeps and dramatic pans when the moment calls for them. All the characters move around with energy and life. Illumination has always done a good job making their films interesting to look at, and Sing is not an exception.
And now for the big question: how is its music? I’m wary of musicals myself, and I haven’t been a fan of Illumination’s past ventures into the genre. I’m looking at you, 2012 Lorax. I have to say though, the songs did fit a lot better because… well, the movie is about a musical performance! It also helps that we don’t get inundated with only pop songs. In fact, the movie lampoons the genre in a delightful, yet emotional way. Instead we’re given a medley of salsa, rock and opera, on top of many more. Seth MacFarlane sings “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” a 1936 Irving Berlin piece. We get a Lennon-McCartney song, “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.” Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” comes in. More importantly, all the actors sing their songs fantastically. I may not be a fan of MacFarlane’s cartoons, but the man certainly boasts a pair of pipes! The soundtrack is a pleasure to listen to, and a movie called Sing should have no other standards. A total of 65 songs make an appearance, so there’s something for everyone here.
To really boil down my review, the most important thing I’d say about Sing is that I like it. Not in a critical appraising way, though I certainly do consider it a well-made piece. I mean that it’s a very likable movie. It’s a pleasant film built on a pleasant story filled with pleasant characters. It’s slightly stuffed, and it didn’t get to go as deep as it could have done. But it seems clear that Illumination doesn’t want to make movies like that. It’s not a tear-jerker like a Pixar film, but they do not want to be Pixar. It’s fun, it’s sweet, and I would feel good sitting kids in front of it. This year’s been an important one for Illumination: before 2016, their only major successes had been Despicable Me and its derivatives. Now that Secret Life and Sing have shown they can both stand on their own two feet (or paws, if you will) Illumination has proven that they have a future that doesn’t rely on hordes of little yellow minions. In the meantime, I would recommend Sing for a pleasant night out, with or without kids.
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.