Sing (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: Garth Jennings
Written by: Garth Jennings
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane & Tori Kelly
Music: Joby Talbot
Release Date: January 27th 2017
As the resources required to make polished-looking 3-D animated films become more affordable, we’re seeing a lot more competition outside of the usual Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks factories but easily the most prominent rival is Illumination Entertainment, the folks behind the “Despicable Me” franchise and ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘. Their recipe for success is mass-market appeal, celebrity voices and relatively low budgets with none of their films costing more than $80M. This formula has worked well so far and after creating a new franchise with ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ last year, they’re hoping to strike gold again with ‘Sing‘.
Taking the early-2000’s obsession with musical talent shows, ‘Sing‘ boasts an all-star cast, a large licensed soundtrack and possibly the worst trailer for a movie I have ever seen. Personal expectations for ‘Sing‘ were abominably low due to its clearly calculated marketing and focus-tested premise. Though it does come from ‘Son of Rambow‘ director/writer Garth Jennings so maybe there’s something to this material. Does ‘Sing‘ add another note to Illumination’s harmonious stable, or is this franchise-starter a flat note?
Set in a world with anthropomorphised animals, Koala Buster Moon (McConaughey) is struggling to keep his theatre business afloat. In order to bring in customers and to create a big spectacle, he decides to host a singing competition with a cash prize of $1,000. However, a printing error results in everyone in town believing the prize to be $100,000 which means a substantial amount of public interest, including Gorilla Johnny (Egerton), Pig Rosita (Witherspoon), Mouse Mike (MacFarlane), Porcupine Ash (Johansson) and Elephant Meena (Kelly). Which contestant will win the prize and become a star and can Buster find his way out of the misunderstanding with the prize money?
‘Sing‘ may have an easily identifiable 3-act structure (Act 1: Assemble the characters. Act 2: Rehearsals. Act 3: Big show) but it’s predominantly made up of numerous mini-arcs and mini-stories concerning the ensemble cast. You’ve got Buster Moon trying to find a way to keep his business handed down to him by his dad alive, Johnny doesn’t want to be part of his dad’s criminal gang, Rosita is attempting to balance singing with being a housewife, Mike needs the money to get out of gambling debts, Ash is going through a break-up with her boyfriend and Meena has crippling stagefright. On the surface you’d assume that these stories seem pretty standard and the characters are stock archetypes and there’s not much here that hasn’t been done elsewhere before.
And you’d be right.
The stories aren’t necessarily bad but due to the ensemble nature of the story and the way it’s paced, the characters aren’t given adequate screentime on their own to get fleshed out beyond their stock archetypes. However, because there are so many characters to dedicate time towards, it allows the film to move pretty quickly along from plot-point to plot-point and the film just about gets away with not providing any sort of depth to its cast. Regarding the narrative, there are no plot-points or character beats or sequences which are either surprising or memorable.
But the biggest issue here is that while the characters on their own might not provide anything interesting, the ensemble have minimal interactions with each other outside of Buster Moon and that’s only due to plot necessity. With the exception of the occasional sentence to each other, this colourful cast of singers don’t have a dynamic between them despite all of the potential in the world being there. Does the punk-rock porcupine have anything to say to the shy elephant? Does Johnny’s passion for singing conflict with Mike using it as a means to an end? The movie does absolutely nothing in this regard. I’d almost settle for the film including these interactions and stumbling, but in ‘Sing‘ they don’t even try.
The reason you go with rather basic, archetypal characters in an ensemble film is to flesh out fresh and new dynamics through interactions. ‘Sing‘ fails in this most basic respect.
But here’s the thing, the story isn’t terrible. It’s passable and does the bare minimum to hold an audience’s attention and despite the horrific marketing campaign focusing on the musical auditions (easily the WORST segment of the film, but more on that later), it only takes up a couple of minutes of the film proper. Thank god. The film even has a decent opening in regards to Buster Moon’s character and the reason he’s so attached to the theatre and a couple of fun gags along his journey like when he starts a car wash business and suggests “Call Me Maybe” as a song for Ash to sing. But that’s mainly because the image of seeing Matthew McConaughey in the recording booth dancing to “Call Me Maybe” is inherently funny.
Speaking of the music, one surprising element to ‘Sing‘ is that some of its licensed music is actually from the previous century which was a bit of a shock. No, the filmmakers didn’t dig very deep into music libraries to find hidden gems or anything remotely removed from the mainstream but seeing songs like “Under Pressure”, “My Way”, “I’m Still Standing” (really well covered by Taron Egerton) interspersed throughout ‘Sing‘ actually feels like the film is going above and beyond when it actually isn’t. Call it the benefit of low expectations. The song covers performed by the cast are pretty good but it’s a shame that the one original song “Set It All Free” performed by Scarlett Johansson is actually a really really lame and dull track. The film put a lot of resources into licensing and covering other songs but for their one original track they really dropped the ball.
Oh, and of course the song “Hallelujah” is performed at the beginning of the 3rd act. You had to ask?
Concerning the film’s audition sequence, there are no jokes to be found. It’s just “animal sings song you’ve heard of” and that IS meant to be the joke. It’s not even cleverly done. We have a sheep singing Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” at one point. It’s not even an actual Seal! How do you miss that gag!? There’s a recurring gag where a group of Japanese Red Pandas sing Kawaii J-Pop…try and find the joke, I dare you. Oh, and the film outright steals a gag from ‘The Peanuts Movie‘. Poor show, Illumination Entertainment.
A major element that helps to epitomise the film’s “bare minimum” approach is the animation and the art design. Yes, all of the characters are animals but the world around them is absolutely grounded in the real world. Absolutely zero thought has been given to the environments which pales in comparison to ‘Zootropolis‘ which came out less than a year prior which had to consider the logistics of differing species inhabiting a city. There’s the odd sight-gag when the film remembers the cast are animals and there’s a pretty cool visual motif concerning glowing squid but for the most part, ‘Sing‘ would be exactly the same film if the cast were humans.
I’m not asking for a hugely elaborate, alien-like world for these animals, but some bare minimum art design would be appreciated. There’s a scene where Buster is with a friend in a restaurant and despite the restaurant being full of animal customers, there’s no food on anyone’s plates. The exact same alligator shows up in the background of every scene in a way to cut corners and the characters rarely change costumes or outfits. These may seem like small nit-picks, but they add up over time and they give ‘Sing‘ a bare-bones appearance which, despite their similar budgets, Illumination Entertainment’s other films typically don’t have. The animation overall isn’t bad and there’s a baseline level of competence and polish, but there’s nothing much to write home about.
‘Sing‘ is not the disastrous, end of civilisation film that its trailers may have indicated but the production reeks of a “just enough” approach with its lack of interesting characters or even an endearing world for them to inhabit. Some of the song covers are well done, but you could just go on YouTube and listen to those. Young kids will likely be entertained and they may even find a new favourite song hidden in the soundtrack but for everyone else, it just doesn’t offer anything interesting outside of that. It could’ve been a helluva lot worse, but that doesn’t give it a free pass.
I give ‘Sing‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 13th Oct 17