Cinematic Releases: They Did It Our Way - Sing (2016) - Reviewed

What is most impressive about the Garth Jennings movie, Sing, the newest offering from Illumination (the studio that brought us the Despicable Me franchise and The Secret Life of Pets) isn’t the story, which is simple enough. It isn’t the all-star cast of voice actors – although the music in this film is remarkably well thought out and performed with aplomb and vitality. What’s most impressive about this film isn’t even the characters, who carry the weight of the narrative in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals which seems far less realized than its cousin in spirit, Disney’s Zootopia.

No, what makes this animated family film stand out – and, indeed, it does in a unique way – is its relentless, genuine optimism. It is a tale coated with positive messages about perseverance, about the power of music, and the moments when desperation and despair lead us to make choices that can affect us for the rest of our lives, but rather than a hokey collection of pop-candy clich├ęs and overreliance on contrived characters, it approaches the meat of its story with a huge helping of heart – and it gets there with a little help from its friends.

Sing is, essentially, about a group of ordinary people (creatures?) who learn to find the extraordinary within themselves, thanks to the driven idealism of Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala whose aging designs on keeping his beloved theatre alive with outdated stage shows has brought him financial ruin –  but whose can-do attitude keeps him on his feet. To attempt saving his theatre from repossession, Buster recruits the local townspeople for an American Idol-style singing contest with an exaggerated prize, and of course, hilarity ensues as his inexorable moxie is tested again and again.

I never knew bacon had a voice. Interesting. Very interesting to say the least. 

When the group of hopeful auditioners is whittled down to a few true talents, the film truly picks up as the characters’ facades fall away to tell their individual stories. Sing shines in the gentle hands with which it nudges its heroes into the spotlight one by one, fleshing out what could easily have been caricatures.

Surprisingly, the most compelling characters in Sing are its females – its strongest and most transformative voices are its swine hausfrau Rosita’s, punk-rock porcupine princess Ash’s, and especially stage-shy pachyderm Meena’s. Reese Witherspoon plays to the spark of the deeply buried ambition hidden within Rosita and the weary world of her stay-at-home-mother lifestyle, challenged to grow into true flame by her flamboyantly buoyant dance partner, Gunter (Nick Kroll), who hopes to unlock Rosita’s inner Miss Piggy. Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a crested porcupine singing backup for her music snob boyfriend Lance (Beck Bennett), who claims to be the true musician of the pair – but it’s clear from the outset that she alone has the chops to sink into her dreams, but she must overcome his shadow to achieve her freedom in the music she loves. Tori Kelly brings to life young elephant Meena, terrified of singing in front of crowds, with powerful pipes, providing just the push Buster needs to bring his own dreams into the limelight.

Music is key throughout this film, and some of its most emotional notes follow in relevant songs – particularly Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Hallelujah” and “Under Pressure”, Queen and David Bowie’s ever-anthemic tune of loving through destruction. Honorable mention also go to Billy Joel’s “I’m Still Standing”, belted by a triumphant, if melancholy, Johnny (Taron Egerton) – a sweetly artistic gorilla whose failed attempts at joining his father’s crime ring have torn his family apart, and smug little Mike’s (Seth MacFarlane) slick rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as a one-rodent Rat Pack (er, Mouse Pack). No matter what may bring this motley collection of misfits down, the music suggests there is always a reason to keep trying, to keep hoping, and to hold on to the things that really matter.

If you believe all those animals made it to Noah's Ark, is it so hard to believe they can sing? No. 

Sing is not revolutionary. It doesn’t speak to the cultural collective in a particularly memorable way, as some other animated films have tried to do, and it isn’t complicated or full of deep intellectual symbolism. But what it does, it does competently and with compassion: It does what movies are meant to do. It brings us, creatures great and small, to a place of magic and wonder, where fear cannot stop us from doing what we love.


-Dana L. Culling