Sing and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Garth Jennings
It seems that Illumination’s business model is to just hammer us over and over again with constant advertisements and marketing pushes for whatever movie that will soon (and not so soon) be hitting theaters. We see it with The Minions invading everything from ironic T-shirts to toilet brushes, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who got REAL sick of those Secret Life of Pets trailers about four months before the damn movie came out. At least with Sing, Illumination had a decent enough premise on its hand and the trailers only got better as time went on. Still, that’s the same strategy that Suicide Squad had, and while I didn’t HATE it, the trailers were clearly selling a film that the ACTUAL movie couldn’t live up to. Will that be the case here with Illuminations latest effort to take over the world with marketable CG characters, or is there something genuinely great here from a studio that’s only made fluff so far? Let’s find out!!
The movie is rather simple as it’s about a theater owning koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who gets desperate enough to rip off American Idol and naturally becomes the talk of the town once he holds open auditions. Our heroes are a gorilla with daddy issues named Johnny (Taron Egerton), a housewife pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) who’s right out of the Marge Simpson School of quiet desperation, a shy but talented elephant named Meena (Tori Kelly), and a too cool for school porcupine named Ash (Scarlett Johansson) who’s relationship with her boyfriend is being strained by this competition. I guess I should also mention Mike the Mouse (Seth MacFarlane), but calling him a hero is a bit of a stretch as he’s the one who REALLY wants to win by any means necessary. Of course, noting goes quite as well as it should, what with Buster’s finances in total disarray and his talent dealing with their own problems at home that threaten to derail this singing competition as much as Buster’s inability to keep the lights on. Will this competition be exactly what Buster needs to save his theater and what everyone else needs to change their lives for the better? What kind of shenanigans does Mike have up his tiny sleeves that can cause big problems for everyone else? Is anyone else feeling a distinct lack of Billy Joel in this movie filled with so many oldies!?
This movie is UNBELIEVABLY frustrating because it never seems to fully understand what works about it. The movie will be on track for a while and make smart decisions are far as pacing and focus, but then all of a sudden we’re completely off track and wasting so much time on subplots that don’t matter in the slightest. Had this been EXACTLY what it’s trailers had shown it to be which is a series of character vignettes based around a singing competition, then this could have easily been the best animated film of the year. Instead, I’d say it’s at least half that, but the parts that aren’t laser focused on the drama the singers are going through just aren’t interesting and take time away from what we’re actually there to see. Still, when it’s on, it’s REALLY on. Most animated movies this year haven’t done much for me, even the critically acclaimed ones like Zootopia, Kubo, and Moana, but they all had moments in them that got to me and showed the great potential they had even if I didn’t think they were fully capitalizing on it. This one, even if half this movie is worse than those, is at least as good if not better than the other animated films this year whenever it is firing on all cylinders. Does having the highest high points make up for having so many low points? Eh… I’m gonna go with… maybe?
The movie starts off very strong right off the bat with the a rather truncated first act that gets us through the character introductions and plot set up within MAYBE ten or fifteen minutes so that we can jump right to our main cast singing pop tunes and acting melodramatic. It works because the premise is so simple to grasp and they do a great job of giving us the characters’ backstory without much need for exposition. Now it could be that Illumination was able to pull this off because of the trailers that they’ve been pumping out constantly for months now already gave us the gist of the characters, but that’s kind a genius move; using the marketing itself as a way to get us invested in the singers before we even walk into the theater (similar to how ACTUAL reality shows market their programs). Well, it’s either that or because the characters are pretty two dimensional (beleaguered housewife, soulful street punk, etc) but the archetypal nature does work in this exaggerated world and for the kind of simplistic yet instantly gratifying stories they wish to tell.
The problem is once we get to the second act, it seems like the movie didn’t know what to do in order to fill time, so instead of simply expanding on the individual character arcs (the actual meat of the story), we’re bogged down by the financial minutia of running a theater and the unfortunately HUGE amount of time they give to Seth MacFarlane’s character who as far as I can recall doesn’t ACTUALLY have a character arc and is just there to bring a completely unnecessary criminal element into this movie (aside from the gorillas) to ratchet up the tension towards the end of the second act. He really is the weak link here; not just because his character is an unsavory jerk wad whose sole purpose is to derail the plot, but because it’s the exact performance you’d expect Seth MacFarlane to play and have seen him play countless times. Sit down because you may not be ready for how SHOCKING of a role he takes here. He’s a selfish crooner styled off of Sinatra and always taking pot shots at others to cover up his own insecurities. I KNOW, RIGHT!? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING LIKE EVERY SINGLE ROLE HE’S EVER PLAYED EVER!! We don’t even get any closure for him the same way we do for the other characters as he just falls off the face of the Earth at the end without any real explanation, and it just makes every time he throws a wrench into the plot that much less tolerable. He’s not WITHOUT charm as he is a genuinely good singer, but they dig too big of an unpalatable hole for him to supposedly pull himself out of in the form of a redemption arc, and the movie doesn’t even attempt to do that.
Everyone else has pretty solid arcs of their own, though some work better than others. The best by far has to be Johnny the Gorilla who’s daddy issues are VERY well realized and his story has a tangible sense of weight to it considering how much his father is relying on him and how much he legitimately broke his heart and ruined his life when Johnny can’t be there for him; even if being there for him would have probably been the worst mistake of his life. It wraps itself up very neatly at the end (it takes almost nothing for his dad to have a change of heart) but it goes back to this movie, at least when it wants to, knowing EXACTLY why its audience is there and giving it to them in a fun and satisfying manner.
The other three subplots are much more flawed, but similarly have some very satisfying moments. Scarlett Johansen’s story is very well put together and there are some heartbreaking scenes with her, but she doesn’t really pull at the heartstrings the same way that Johnny or Meena do, and I think she has the weakest of the ending songs, even if it’s by no means bad. Speaking of Meena, she felt like she should have been on par with Johnny as far as being the emotional entry point for the target audience (not sure if the kids are gonna care as much about cheating boyfriends and unappreciative husbands as much as dealing with your dad or being socially awkward), but her story just has one too many conveniences throughout that kind of undercut her growth as a character. Hell, she doesn’t even have to sing once for Buster before getting a chance to sing in this competition and this decision happens at such an arbitrary point in the movie that it feels like they wrote themselves into a corner and couldn’t figure a way out. Still, her lack of self-confidence is very well illustrated here and it’s cathartic when she finally gets over her stage fright; not to mention it leading to one of the best numbers in the movie. The one that unfortunately fell the flattest for me was Rosita the pig’s story that clearly had the most potential, but needed way more time to develop it. She’s feeling underappreciated at home which is plain enough to see, but we don’t get any perspective on her kids or on her husband who don’t seem to have any opinion either way about what she’s up to. I guess that’s kind of the point considering how the story is about her feeling underappreciated, but look at something The Simpson’s episode A Streetcar Name Marge which had a very similar story but managed to tell it in a much better way with Marge’s frustration at Homer’s boorishness and irresponsibility bubbling to the surface when she needs to rely on him to pick up the slack while she’s rehearsing for the play. Here, she just builds a Rube Goldberg Machine which takes care of things for the most part; leaving her family (including the INCREDIBLY talented Nick Offerman playing her husband) with nothing to do or crises to face during her absence. Instead, her character arc is mostly just finding the confidence to dance and her family barely factors into it.
Aside from the MacFarlane Mouse, the only other character who felt mishandled plot wise (and took up way too much of the running time) was Buster Moon whose arc is something I’m still not quite clear on. His theater is in debt and is in a constant state of disrepair, but why is that so much of the focus here? The movie never really addresses if he was a bad producer or WHY he never made money off of his shows; just that they never did. He doesn’t even really have a flaw to overcome except POSSIBLY over ambition, but he doesn’t waste money or half ass anything. We see him working hard at everything he does, yet the movie is content to keep throwing adversity at him for no real reason when the more interesting material is in the lives and struggles of the singers. He could have worked better if his story wasn’t so central to the movie and simply took on a mentor role for everyone, but because the movie’s entire third act (as well as the end of second act ALL IS LOST moment) is about him and his myriad of setbacks, it feels like a waste of screen time when there’s simply not enough meat to his side of the story compared to everyone else’s.
There’s about a third of this movie that I would have cut out entirely to make room for more character moments for our main singers, but the two thirds that work are such a delight to watch that I almost want to go back and see the damn thing again just for those moments. I’ll probably just wait for the blu ray, but the rest of you should go see it in the theater which is the best way to see something like this. Maybe it’s not the most critically acclaimed or deep animated film of the year, but I probably had more fun in here than I did in Zootopia which I will remind you had Godfather and Breaking Bad references in it; neither of which were as funny as anything in here. Of course, it doesn’t have a strong message or even the best animation, but it’s still incredibly enjoyable and will probably be the animated film I remember the most from this year. I might be overselling it a bit (it drags in places and has no idea just how unpleasant Seth MacFarlane’s character really is), but you should still go out and enjoy this film even with all its faults. If nothing else, Illumination is gonna make a boat load of money once they officially upload those musical numbers to YouTube.
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