Movie Review: ‘SING’ is like ‘ZOOTOPIA’ without the smarts, heart

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

SING |  110 min  |  PG  
Director: Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet
Starring: Matthew McConaugheyReese WitherspoonSeth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman and John C. Reilly

It honestly doesn’t matter what my opinion is of writer-director Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet’s SING because it’s going to make a bajillion dollars. It’s critic-proof.

This is the deep rooted futility I’ve felt since MINIONS – a colorful, cute, cuddly film with a pop soundtrack, but without much emotional drive – made a gargantuan amount of money. SECRET LIFE OF PETS – a colorful, cute, cuddly film that hand waves emotional drive – didn’t exactly re-affirm my trust that the Illumination model of storytelling would be improving anytime soon. Now it’s confirmed with SING – another colorful, cute, cuddly film with a pop soundtrack and not a lot of emotional drive. And until audiences stop supporting this model, this company won’t be changing their format any time soon.

Struggling theater owner Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughy) has fallen on hard times. The koala’s barely got two nickels to rub together, but he’s wealthy in hope and dreams. It’s then when Buster decides on his next project to reinvigorate his decaying theater: a singing competition with a thousand dollar prize. The auditions attract the likes of the following: gorilla Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), the hooligan son of a bank robber with a song in his heart; pig Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), mom to 25 piglets and wife to an unappreciative husband (voiced by Nick Offerman); pig Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), who’s body confident and ready to move; mouse Mike (voiced by Seth McFarlane), a jazz-lovin’ street busker who’s always on the hustle; porcupine Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a punk rock teen used to living in her boyfriend’s shadow; and elephant Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), who’s got a powerful voice and a crippling case of stage fright. Together, they conquer their fears – but not without facing their fair share of character-shaping shenanigans.

Matthew McConaughey and Garth Jennings in SING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Matthew McConaughey and Garth Jennings in SING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Essentially, if you’ve ever seen THE MUPPET SHOW, you’ll instantly get this, as act two Buster is peak Kermit The Frog. The constant chaos of backstage tomfoolery provides the slapstick for kids to laugh – only there’s no witty zingers for the adults to chuckle at. If you saw 2011’s THE MUPPETS, you’ll recognize SING’s denouement, which seems to be lifted straight from that film. The (literal) foxes of the Japanese pop-star girl group (why not K-pop?!) are this film’s Minions  – popping up for comedic purposes and speaking an unintelligible language (at least, to the protagonist).

While Jennings and Lourdelet gives a bit more heft to Buster and Meena’s arcs, the rest of their characters are dealt a disservice. Ash’s arc is soft and amounts to a finger-waving lesson on dating bad boyfriends. Rosita’s biggest worry (that’s only a worry for one scene) is that she can’t do the dance moves – not that she’s abandoned her children and husband to the care of a robot, or that her family doesn’t even notice she’s gone! Johnny worries he’s upset his disapproving father for the sum total of one scene.  Mike has no arc at all – he’s just an unapologetic jerk, who is introduced to us mugging an asthmatic, and ends it having robbed a pack of Russian gangster bears. And poor Gunter never even had any obstacles to overcome.

As you’d expect, music cues are a mile a minute. The audition sequence is the most egregious, switching tracks every ten seconds. It’s surprising the end scroll aren’t just fifteen minutes music credits. When they aren’t hitting those story beats with on-the-nose musical selections (like Sinatra’s “My Way,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing,” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”), they are mismatching recognizable songs with scenes that don’t quite fit (like Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls)” during a car chase with men, and Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” during a car wash where a koala and a sheep hump cars clean). Interweaving of music is handled better in TROLLS, which is more of an actual musical than this.

Reese Witherspoon and Nick Kroll in SING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Reese Witherspoon and Nick Kroll in SING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Unlike ZOOTOPIA and BOJACK HORSEMAN, SING doesn’t even bother doing anything interesting with its world. There are no animal puns, nor are there social issues with all the species cohabitating. Plenty of bulls are shown – none of them in china shops, nor taking dumps. Eddie (voiced by John C. Reilly), who plays Buster’s producing partner, should’ve been a goat to really nail the layers of being a rich “kid.” The most creative the filmmakers get is the fluidity of a few of the animated segments – like when Rosita finds her groove in the grocery store to Gipsy Kings’ “Bombaleo,” or during the dazzling “squid power” segment set to Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” (a.k.a. more on-the-nose music cues). That said, there’s a little more heart infused into Jennings and Lourdelet’s narrative that the typical Illumination film, but it’s soft platitudes of believing in yourself and conquering your fears.

Overall, SING is a wasted opportunity to really dig down deep to explore a world we’d dream of living in. Worse, it fails to put a song in our hearts.

SING opens on December 21.

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