Sing is a film that deliberately plays to all of Illumination Entertainment’s weaknesses and the results are exactly how that sounds.
I feel like one could immediately pierce through to the centre of Illumination Entertainment’s intentions in the films that they make by walking up to any member of the team that worked on Sing and asking them, point blank, “Why Talking Animals?” It’s a fair question to ask, given how Animated Film at the moment, and even through much of its commercial history, is plagued with Talking Animal films. If one is going to make a Talking Animal film in the year 2016, then one needs to have a damn good reason for it. DreamWorks had one for Kung Fu Panda 3, it’s the third in a trilogy and that initially worked by giving anthropomorphised visualisations of Chinese martial art forms to base its characters off of. Disney had one for Zootopia, it’s a deconstruction of the entire concept of the Talking Animal movie but is also a way to work in metaphors about prejudice and racial stereotyping that are both nuanced and incredibly relevant for the time of its release. Illumination even had one for The Secret Life of Pets, it’s the whole damn premise of the movie and so golden I’m amazed nobody else had tried it beforehand!
But ask them “why Talking Animals?” for Sing, and I doubt that you’d get a satisfactory artistic answer. At best, maybe one of the staffers will admit to you that human beings just don’t quite gel with the distinct design identity that Illumination have carved out for themselves, so they chose Talking Animals as a way to minimise that particular weakness. More than likely, though, they’ll probably stutter and stammer their way through a total non-answer because they don’t have one. The most likely reason is that studio head Chris Meledandri saw that Talking Animal movies are the most successful and profitable type of animated features, and so made the decision to make Sing a Talking Animal movie because that’s where the money is.
I have given Illumination plenty of leeway over the years: they’ve been dreadful at crafting narratives or well-developed characters or any kind of drama, but they were having to find their feet on the big stage with no prior practice or experience – they didn’t even start making short films until they needed stuff to cram onto the home video release of Despicable Me – and their films, whilst lacking in any identity, were mostly at least funny enough that I was willing to cut them a little slack. Give them time to discover themselves, to iron out their wrinkles, to reach deep down and make that classic film that every studio has in them. The problem with this approach, though, is that “a little leeway” can soon inadvertently turn into “eh, it’s fine I guess,” which is something I refuse to allow in my judgement of Animated Family Movies, and it doesn’t take into account that Illumination, in just 6 short years, have already become the indisputable third biggest name in Western Animation. When you are one of the big boys, being given leeway for basic filmmaking mistakes and blatant satisfying-minimalist-standards feels rather like taking the piss.
Yet, Sing on paper represents Illumination trying to actively combat that issue. Yeah, you could focus on the more cynical and blatantly commercial aspects of the premise: a jukebox musical about talking animals voiced by big-name celebrities partaking in a singing competition. But look a little deeper and you can maybe see where some legitimate artistic intentions are taking root. For one, it’s primarily a drama. Oh, sure, there are jokes, but the vast majority of the film actually minimises the gags in favour of attempts at more emotional and grounded fare. They’ve also handed over both the writing and directing reins to Garth Jennings, one half of music video legends Hammer & Tongs as well as the director of Son of Rambow and the underrated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, in much the same way that Warner Animation Group handed over the creative reins entirely to Phil Lord & Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie) and Nicholas Stoller (Storks) to make idiosyncratic films for them. It’s a conscious effort on the part of the studio to work on their weaknesses and address their most prominent criticisms. There was reason to remain hopeful against all the evidence.
Instead, the more cynical outcome has occurred, which will be unsurprising for anybody who pays attention to the short opening credits roll. Sing, much like with Pets, is not introduced as “An Illumination Entertainment Film” or “A Garth Jennings Film” or anything like you see in other animated films. No, Sing, much like with Pets, is introduced as “A Chris Meledandri Production,” just so you know who’s really in charge here, and the results end up exactly like every other Illumination feature to date albeit, just like with their terrible adaptation of The Lorax, intentionally playing to all of their weakest aspects, the continued ineptitude of which is only highlighted even more by the blatant cynicism on display. This is the kind of film where I can tell you for a fact that more money was spent on music licensing than most of the rest of the film, and you would totally believe that without my having to tell you or show you an interview proving such an observation to be true.
Early on in the film, Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), the koala owner of the failing Moon Theatre, pitches the idea of a singing contest to his sheep friend Eddie (John C. Reilly) as a means of saving his theatre from repossession, only for Eddie to respond, “Who wants to see another one of those?” It’s a cutesy moment of self-awareness from a film that otherwise plays this kind of plot completely straight, but it’s also inadvertently a completely valid self-criticism. Why a singing contest? There’s a certain logic in it – the structure of the singing contest that has consumed popular culture in the 21st century gives you heroes and villains, secret talents and obvious showstoppers, all base themselves around underdog “rags-to-riches” storylines with flaws and weaknesses the viewer can gain an investment from watching a participant overcome; all of which are dramatic and narrative gold to a fictional story – but that requires having to ignore how completely played out singing contests as a whole now are. You can’t play a fictional one straight but you can’t necessarily parody it, either; every last possible avenue to take this premise in has already been done by reality.
So, much like with being a Talking Animal movie, why a singing contest? What is the bold new angle and fresh new spin that you’re putting on the material? Who are these lovingly crafted, multi-dimensional, super-rootable characters that are going to make the completely generic nature of its story and premise negligible because they’re just so darn entertaining? Sing, sadly, doesn’t have an answer for either of these questions. It plays out the seen-it-all-before beats of your singing contests and “let’s put on a show” narratives with no twists or surprises, and none of its large ensemble cast get enough screentime or depth of personality to leave anything of an impression outside of their archetype, or even the slightest hint of a genuine emotional investment. Instead, Sing’s answer appears to be that it’s inherently funny to see a Buffalo sing “Butterfly” by Crazy Town, or a trio of bunnies singing the sample to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” and that a soundtrack featuring Tori Kelly crooning “Hallelujah” is going to shift a billion copies so who cares about the creative reasons for all this, eh?
What’s more, Sing is a film that can’t even do the basic format of a singing contest right! Again, this is largely as a result of it being an ensemble movie with too many characters and too constrained of a runtime to be able to do any of them justice – despite running just under 2 hours, a rarity for an animated movie, there are 7 different main characters, each with their own plots and arcs – but this is also down to often inconsistent characterisations and a weird refusal to ever fire off any of its many prospective dramatic cannons. Seth MacFarlane plays Mike, a self-styled Rat Pack street-busking mouse who has a massive ego and accompanying superiority complex (who also effectively browbeats a mute female mouse into being his love interest but that’s a whole other thing). Logic dictates that he becomes our reality show villain, the one who is not here to make friends and we love to hate, but Sing keeps piling on scenes and moments prior to the finale where we’re supposed to feel sorry for him or he’s being chased by 3 bears who wish to murder him for swindling some money from them, and he just becomes the snarky one of the troupe as a result.
Worst of all, though, is Buster Moon himself. This should be impossible to screw up: Buster is the lovable idealistic underdog, the one who believes in his fading theatre, in the arts, whose passion may outstrip his resources but whom we root for because of that. The one who scrimps, hustles, and scrapes and claws his way through with the purest of intentions in order to put on this show and save his theatre. He is good, he is kind… he is also kind of a huge dick. Stealing electricity from nearby buildings without their knowledge, ducking relentless bank managers who wish to be paid with money he doesn’t have, and even not owning up to the accidental lie at the centre of the film (we’ll come back to that shortly) are all understandable. Cutting two contestants because one accidentally farted in his face and the other is a giraffe and therefore requires sustained effort to hold a conversation with, his treatment of a Japanese fox group who can’t speak English, and trying to force Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk teenaged porcupine to sing “Call Me Maybe” purely because she’s a teenage girl, far less so. And he keeps seesawing back and forth between lovable underdog and huge dick throughout the whole film, oftentimes purely for the sake of a joke, and with zero self-awareness on the part of the film itself.
That could be forgiven if it were part of Buster’s character arc or utilised for dramatic conflict, but Sing is weirdly terrified of actually using any of its prospective dramatic conflicts in any meaningful way. The big accidental lie at the centre of the narrative is that Buster’s initial prize of $1,000 ends up being mass-printed as $100,000 due to a mishap with a glass eye – yeah, I haven’t really talked about it, but the comedy attempts on display in Sing are uncharacteristically poor by Illumination’s usual decent standards. You would expect this to become a huge End of Second Act conflict generator once the truth comes out, but it really doesn’t. In fact, basically nothing comes of it. Ditto most of the film’s other subplots, which either take up a bunch of screentime but don’t come to any semblance of a conclusion (Mike’s adventures even end with him in the middle of grave danger) or are shunted so far into the background as to fail to make any impact when their payoff does arrive (Meena, played by Tori Kelly, an elephant who wants to perform and has crippling stage-fright but becomes pretty much forgotten about at the one-third mark until it’s time to bring the house down).
If I were being really generous, one could compare Sing to Magic Mike XXL, where conflict is actively avoided and the fulfilling act of performing at all is highlighted and celebrated, particularly since both movies effectively smash cut to credits as soon as their final performances wrap up with little in the way of an epilogue of any kind. But Magic Mike XXL managed to justify that intentional lack of conflict by offering up something subversive and different – a celebration of sexuality shot with a more female and homosexual gaze – in its place, and strongly defined and entertaining characters whom we spend enough time with, get to know deeply enough, and understand personal inner conflicts well enough to make the whole experience feel meditative and emotional. But Sing is too busy jumping between its many characters, all of whom are thinly sketched and lacking in substance, to create the meditative mood, which leaves it reliant on heart and emotion that just aren’t there. The finale should be a rousing crowdpleaser, filled as it is with back-to-back payoffs, but I just sat there decidedly unmoved because none of the characters convinced in any way and the film’s messages about the power of performing just came down to the same inane platitudes as every other generic Kids’ Animation.
Admittedly, Sing is not terrible. The animation, whilst rather generic and uninspiring in terms of character designs and more than just a little too oversaturated for my tastes, is decent with Illumination’s usual strong command of character animation serving it well, even if the film doesn’t do anything interesting with perspective or scale despite all the animals running around. The vocal performances are great, with McConaughey in particular trying with all of his might to make Buster Moon a rootable presence. And the songs, whilst suffering from several choices being painfully on-the-nose – Johnny (Taron Egerton) performs Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” for his finale song seemingly because there’s a lyric about someone “hiding behind that mask [they] use,” for his father uses masks during crimes, ugh – are all very well-sung if mostly unspectacular.
You’ll notice, though, that I am really stretching for positives to espouse about Sing. Again, in theory, it’s a film that represents Illumination trying their damndest to work on their weaknesses and take steps towards acting like the world-conquering megastars that they are. But in practice, it’s a film that just illuminates their flaws even brighter than ever before, not helped by how soulless and blatantly commercially-driven the whole enterprise feels. It’s dramatically limp, it’s painfully generic, it’s structurally compromised, and it fails to offer up any compelling reason as to why you or I should spend almost 2 hours watching it. It’s not terrible, but there’s also basically nothing to recommend here, and my patience with Illumination has all-but run out. I want them to be great, I want them to improve, I want them to have soul and passion and basic narrative competency. Instead, they do an extended dance sequence that’s almost a complete and blatant rip-off of the one featured in The Peanuts Movie over 14 months ago, with the exact same music cue. Perhaps not coincidentally, Chris Meledandri was also the head of Blue Sky Studios before founding Illumination, which I think says it all.