[Note: Before the TIFF 2016 Press & Industry screening, a publicist for Universal announced that this was still a work in progress. However, the film looked totally finished. There were no animatics or storyboards or anything like that. It’s possible they could still add or subtract scenes before the film is released in December, but what I saw looked like a complete film.]
I’m not a big fan of Illumination Entertainment’s films. I think they’re hypocritical (The Lorax), lazy (The Secret Life of Pets), or forgettable at best (Despicable Me). And yet all of their movies are ridiculously successful at the box office, and their latest feature, Sing, will likely be more of the same. What makes Sing moderately interesting, is that it expresses the ethos that Illumination seems to operate under—that it’s better to be popular that original. Crammed with pop songs sung by cuddly animals, Sing is a passable confection designed to keep kids amused for an hour and fifty minutes.
In a city populated by anthropomorphic animals, Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a koala bear who runs a failing theater. Desperate for a hit, he puts out a call for a singing competition, which gets an unexpected amount of attention because of an error on the flyer advertising a $100,000 prize instead of the $1,000 Buster has on hand. After a bunch of hopefuls audition with a wide variety of songs you’ll recognize, Buster chooses the finalists: overworked housewife Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), rocker Ash (Scarlett Johansson), rude crooner Mike (Seth MacFarlane), bashful gang member Johnny (Taron Egerton), and a few others. While the group is busy in rehearsals, Buster gets to work trying to scrape together the increased prize money from his friend’s wealthy grandma, Miss Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Saunders).
While the ads for Sing may try to pass off the film as a jukebox musical, it’s actually surprisingly short on musical numbers of any kind. Watching Sing is the equivalent of hearing a few seconds of a song you like before it skips to the next one. Rather than use the music to tell a story or turn these songs into new music videos featuring animated animals, they’re just piled in like the producers got a discount on using hit songs. The montage of the animals auditioning with snippets of songs isn’t the aberration; it’s the rule. It’s not until the end of the movie where you get to hear songs in their entirety.
But the film’s love (or at least its prevalence) of pop music and Buster’s enthusiasm at pushing pop songs on his performers tell us something about Illumination. The only performer in the show who writes and performs an original song (or at least it’s passed off as an original song; I’m not caught up on every pop song from the last five years) is Ash. Everyone else plays a tune that’s already established, and that’s what Sing is celebrating: being able to perform the familiar rather than the new and personal.
I’m sure Sing will make a ridiculous amount of money because Illumination is a studio that knows how to give the people what they want. Of course, we already had a movie full of anthropomorphic animals this year, and it did alright at the box office even though it had an allegory about racial injustice. Illumination will never try to tackle anything like that. Sing shows they’re happy to whistle a familiar tune all the way to the bank.