It’s a tad ironic that an animated feature about a talent contest is arriving at the tail end of a year that has seen formidable competition in its field. Sing has plenty of surface pleasures, but coming in the wake of the wonderful animal-world dynamics of Zootopia and the great original songs in Moana, it can’t help but feel like a second-placer.
Sing takes place in a city populated by talking animals, though any tension exists only as it arises from the ways in which they behave like people, not any inbred interspecies rivalry. And many of them have the very human dream of stardom, which is stoked when koala Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) hits on an American Idol-style talent show as a way to save his failing legit theater, and himself from his creditors. Thanks to an accidental inflation in the amount of money promised to the winner (a mistake it takes Buster remarkably long to catch on to), he is swarmed by applicants, and the audition montage gives writer/director Garth Jennings the first chance to deploy the movie’s surefire audience-pleasing tactic: cute or goofy animals singing popular tunes, sometimes appropriately, sometimes not for comic effect (a snail belts out Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind,” for example).
Jennings, whose 2008 live-action Son of Rambow traded on the same contrast (schoolkids attempting a backyard remake of the Sylvester Stallone favorite), gets a lot of mileage out of that gambit, and some of the briefly seen performances are undeniably, briefly hilarious. Then it comes down to the five finalists, each with their own personal issues: Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon) yearns to escape her stiflingly monotonous domestic life; Ash the punk porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) is selected but her boyfriend/bandmate isn’t; Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) is rebelling against his father’s criminal lifestyle; Meena the elephant (Tori Kelly) has full support of her family but suffers from crippling shyness; and Mike the rat (Seth MacFarlane) could use the money to get some underworld types off his back.
The drama that results amidst and outside the group’s rehearsals is none too surprising, and even some of the grace notes are familiar from past ordinary-folks-get-musical movies. (Rosita’s spontaneous dance in a grocery store directly recalls the unemployment-line/“You Sexy Thing” bit in The Full Monty.) For quite a stretch, Sing coasts along on the occasional inspired visual gag and the strength of its voice cast, who do what they can to bring true emotion to their stock characters in a story that has to rely on not one but two criminal gangs to provide conflict. Faring best are Egerton, whose fraught relationship with his dad has the most moving payoff; MacFarlane, having fun as a tiny rodent with a big ego who probably wonders why they don’t just name him the winner right away and get it over with; and Nick Kroll as Gunter, an exuberant German porker who becomes Rosita’s partner (but not a romantic interest, which might have made her subplot more interesting).
They all do well with their singing performances, with the best pipes, not surprisingly, belonging to established performer/songwriter Kelly. On the other hand, Johansson, who already passed the audition with her wonderful torch-song rendition of “Trust Me” during The Jungle Book’s end credits (someone get her the title-song gig on the next James Bond film—and cast her to star, while they’re at it) is somewhat shortchanged by her hard-rock material.
The real point, of course—once the story has gotten past the inevitable disaster/crisis at the end of act two, followed by everyone pulling themselves together to launch act three—is the opening-night finale, where everyone gets to show their stuff and prove themselves to all the doubters out there. This sort of thing is irresistible in live action or animation, and absolutely brings Sing to a rousing finish. Yet here, as throughout the film, the jukebox-musical approach to the song selection seems too easy, even opportunistic. There are a couple of original tunes sprinkled in for variety (and to grab that Oscar nomination), but mostly a sense of falling back on proven standards.
Of course an audience is going to be moved when, at her lowest moment, Meena/Kelly does a heartfelt rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and exhilarated when Johnny/Edgerton rocks out with Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” and caught up in the moment when Mike/MacFarlane pours his heart into Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” under physical duress. And the lengthy, upbeat climax will no doubt have the desired effect of sending family crowds out happy and humming; it certainly led this critic to forget the film’s prior shortcomings for a little while. Whether Sing will make the lasting impression necessary to encourage repeat viewings, however, is another matter.