Sing: Got Nothin’ in My Brain, by David Bax
Given that it takes place in a city populated by anthropomorphic animals, it will be difficult for Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet’s Sing to avoid comparisons to this year’s previous such entry, Zootopia. That’s bad news for Illumination’s new animated feature because it won’t weather those juxtapositions well. Zootopia explored a surprisingly complex and nuanced set of ideas concerning identity, intersectionality and privilege. Sing, on the other hand, can barely be bothered to swipe lazily at de rigueur “Believe in yourself” platitudes.
Buster (Matthew McConaughey), a koala, owns and manages a once-great, rundown theater. After putting on a long series of flops, he’s near bankruptcy and the loss of the theater itself, which represents every dream he’s had since he was a child. Then, inspiration strikes (or at least that’s how it’s presented; nothing here is all that inspired). He decides to reverse his fortunes by holding a singing competition, inviting all of the city’s residents to come try their chance at a big cash prize. After auditions, he settles on a small group of contestants. There’s a pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a mouse named Mike (Seth McFarlane), a porcupine named Ash (Scarlett Johansson), an elephant named Meena (Tori Kelly), an ape named Johnny (Taron Egerton) and, for comic relief, a second pig named Gunter (Nick Kroll).
If you’re confused as to how a competition with such a small contestant pool works or who is supposed to be judging the thing or how exactly this whole endeavor is supposed to generate a life-changing sum of money for Buster, you’re thinking about this way harder than the movie would prefer. The whole thing is just a rickety frame on which to hang a jukebox musical and give each character a chance to neatly overcome their obstacles.
In stark contrast to Zootopia, Sing is disappointingly willing to rest unquestioningly on traditional family values and gender roles. The worst example of this is poor Rosita, who apparently can’t even conceive of using her talents to break out of the drudgery of being a wife and mother to a massive family who ignores her. All she can aim for is to have the drudgery acknowledged. Still, at least she dodges the racism the movie displays towards its running joke of the Japanese creatures who smile vapidly and maniacally while chirping and bouncing along to disposable dance pop.
Sing’s visual style is a bizarre blend of realistically rendered environments and cartoonish movement within them. The sense of lighting is often remarkable; the climax perfectly captures the mix of brightness and fuzziness when artificial light and moonlight comingle in an outdoor amphitheater. And there’s a kineticism that occasionally serves the film well, as in a Titanic-style flood disaster sequence or a bit of time-lapse that cleverly blends the staccato mechanics of physical film with the gravity-defying possibilities of animation. But, mostly, everything feels too flubbery for any stakes to take hold.
Nearly every second of Sing is covered by recognizable rock and pop tunes as reimagined by the film’s characters. And even though the song selection (The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, etc.) is far better than average (and far, far better than 2016’s other animated jukebox musical, Trolls), these numbers don’t serve much purpose. Neither does the movie.