TORONTO – Sometimes you just can’t hate a movie. It may annoy you. It may make your eye rolls a bit, but eventually you just succumb to the sheer entertainment of it all. That’s the case with Garth Jennings’ “Sing” which had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival Sunday afternoon.
The Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment production is Jennings’ first animated feature after critical and cult favorites “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Son of Rambow.” His strong eye serves him well here as he purposefully has the camera zig and zag around the animated landscape of a San Diego-like city filled with talking and walking animals (“Zootopia” who?) and throws in a slew of creative visual ideas you don’t expect here and there (many of which should simply not be spoiled). The only problem is that a lot of those winning compositions don’t occur until the final half of the movie. The beginning is a bit rougher.
“Sing” sets up its story line — and it’s a predicable one — quite simply. Koala bear Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) has been a fan of live theater since he was a little boy and his father saved up as much money as he could to help him buy an old showpalace downtown. Buster, however, is not a as good a businessman as he is a showman. He’s desperate for a hit to stave off the bank and workers he hasn’t been able to pay off and he decides to have a singing contest to help raise the money he needs (seriously, don’t think about the logic or familiarity of this scenario too much). Unfortunately, his faithful assistant Ms. Crawly (Jennings) is a lizard who is a bit off her kilter and misprints the cash prize on the audition flyer as $100,000 instead of $1,000 without Buster’s knowledge. It’s no surprise then that a huge contingent of different animals appear at the auditions and sing a wide range of popular songs that mom, dad, your niece and even Aunt Sue will recognize.
Buster’s finalists turn out to be somewhat of a motley crew. He pairs the oh so very flamboyant pig Gunter (a fantastic Nick Kroll) with Rita (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of 25 piglets with an internal diva waiting to step into the spotlight. There’s Ash (Scarlett Johansson), the punk rock porcupine that needs her own solo act from her boyfriend to truly shine. Bringing some attitude is Mike the mouse (Seth Macfarlane playing Seth Macfarlane), an old-school crooner who is as bad at money as Buster. Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a teenage gorilla with a heartwarming voice that has no desire to be part of his dad’s robbery gang and somehow ends up unintentionally putting him in jail. And, last but not least, the shyest unknown elephant superstar of them all, Meena (Tori Kelly). Jennings has made sure they each have a plotline and some are more powerful than others. For instance, Mike’s problems with a bunch of bears he owes money too feels a bit too similar to Buster’s problems, while Johnny’s semi-estranged relationship with his dad (Peter Serafinowicz) completely works.
One of the most impressive aspects about “Sing” is just how well the entire cast can, well, sing. Egerton’s voice is jaw-droppingly impressive and you can imagine anyone looking for the next young musical lead will seriously give him a major look after this one. Johansson has already proved her musical chops before and is stellar again here. And, obviously, Grammy nominee Kelly makes Meena’s third act reveal as powerful as it needs to be.
It my seem flippant to compare “Sing” to another Universal property, “Pitch Perfect,” but in many ways its truly an apt and positive comparison. The first parts of both movies are a mix of laughs and some clunky plot points, but when anyone sings? When the big show finally happens at the end of the picture? You can’t help but smile. [B+]
“Sing” was screened as a “work in progress” which was somewhat ridiculous as there wasn’t a technical glitch to be found, but so be it.
“Sing” opens nationwide on Dec. 21.