“Sing” is one of 2016’s most pleasant -- and most unexpected -- surprises. It’s an animated film that feels vibrant, fresh and deliriously fun for kids, parents, and anyone who understands the passions that drive us to, well, sing.
Why is that so surprising? For months, a rather annoying trailer has run before other animated films, a series of quick cuts featuring anthropomorphic animals crooning songs by Lady Gaga, Seal, Sir-Mix-a-Lot and Crazytown. (The “Butterfly” guys? Hmm.)
That footage is all here. But in the context of the film, it works. “Sing” is that kind of success, an animated gem in which almost everything goes right.
Still, in addition to the teaser trailer, the plot summary also was cause for worry. It’s the story of a down-on-his-luck theater owner who puts on a singing competition in one last attempt at glory. Yes, another singing competition storyline. Here, it works, for a number of reasons.
First is the voice acting. Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, a koala who has loved live performance since his youth. The owner of a crumbling theater is besieged by bill collectors and hiding from the bank after a series of flops.
McConaughey’s drawl makes the idealistic Moon a likable charmer. The audience develops a real interest in his master plan, a singing competition that could change his fortunes.
A shot at changing fortunes is the theme of the film, and the characters who pass the auditions all seek to do just that.
There’s Ashley (Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine rocker who must leave behind her boyfriend and singing partner. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig, is a harried wife and mother to 25 piglets.
Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is a crooning mouse with a penchant for living beyond his means. Real-life singer Tori Kelly voices Meena, an elephant with a stunning voice but a fear of the stage. Johnny (Taron Egerton), the British-accented son of a gangster, possesses a Sam Smith-esque voice. Lastly is Gunter (the great comedian Nick Kroll), Rosita’s dance-crazy pig musical partner.
This colorful group comes together with Buster, his aged iguana assistant, and Buster’s pal Eddie (John C. Reilly), a wealthy sheep.
The actors are, without fail, fantastic, especially McConaughey, Johansson, and Egerton. Also contributing to the film’s success is the truly stunning animation. The 3D here is glorious, and that’s apparent from the first few minutes, a sweeping, immersive trip into a theatrical performance. This is visually transcendent stuff.
Writer-director Garth Jennings, a music video vet who helmed the so-so “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” deserves major credit for pulling off something special here. Without pandering, he has crafted a winning family film, one with little objectionable content and wide appeal. That’s not easy.
It must be said that “Sing” is a bit overlong at 108 minutes. It moves briskly before Buster falls back down to earth again, and then slows a tad. The enthusiasm of the littlest audience members might start to dip.
However, the film then explodes into a wonderfully satisfying concert climax, a sequence with real heart and tangible oomph. Viewers will leave “Sing” with spirits high, and that’s a sign of a hugely successful family film.
“Sing” is the latest film from Illumination Entertainment, the production company behind the “Despicable Me” and “Minions” films, and last summer’s “Secret Life of Pets.” Illumination has gone from blockbuster to blockbuster, but “Sing” is something different. It’s the first effort from the company that can stand with the big boys as emotionally satisfying viewing. “Sing” is the animated film this season needs.
And while “Sing” is missing from most prognosticators’ lists of possible Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees, I’d stack it up against any of its 2016 cousins, including the stunning “Kungo and the Two Strings.”More enjoyable than “Finding Dory,” more clever than the overrated “Zootopia,” and more memorable than “Moana,” “Sing” is a real holiday treat.
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)
With the voices of: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Garth Jennings
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: PG for some rude humor and mild peril.
The lowdown: A koala named Buster Moon has one final chance to restore his theater to its former glory by producing the world's greatest singing competition.