Brit director Garth Jennings turns his hand to an eccentric animated singing competition in this utterly delightful new work.
Animation is doing really well lately, with Pixar in particular finding huge audiences with their emotional, cross-generational crowd pleasers. Other producers are also attempting to surf this wave with alternative, even parodic versions of the family-oriented genre, most recently with the infamous Sausage Party.
In the midst of this meta mess, overflowing with pop culture references and big emotions, a film as modest yet clever and engaging as Garth Jennings’ Sing comes as a breath of fresh air, reminding us why we loved those animated films so much in the first place. The title itself is extremely straightforward but points directly at the beautiful simplicity of the film’s thesis: if singing makes you feel like a million bucks, then sing goddam it.
No one knows that better than Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, uncharacteristically cheerful), the theatre director who, despite economic difficulties, never gives up on his love for show business. While his optimism first appears as a simple kiddie movie trope, the entire film progressively imbues it with gravitas to paint a realistic and hopeful portrait of entertainers and the energy that drives them. Moon’s challenge is also contending with the fact that every other character has to face the dilemma between committing to artistic dreams or continuing their already complicated lives.
In addition to that classic problem of the young artist, many more personal issues are explored through the animals taking part in Moon’s singing competition. Each is realised with great detail and a surprising level of realism. From the pressures of housewifery to the challenges of father-son relationships, in under two hours, Jennings explores the spectrum of human experience with a startling, unapologetic refusal to round out the edges. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) struggles with her 25 piglets but the film doesn’t take the easy route of blaming her husband for not helping her in the house: he works every day and falls asleep right after coming home, but not before complimenting her on her hard work.
The not-quite-epic yet exciting adventure progresses according to the basic, pragmatic idea that every character does his or her best given her circumstances, which doesn’t mean there is no place for spectacular action and striking emotion. In fact, having the randomness of life occupy such a primary place makes for sometimes awkward, but most often fascinating twists and mood swings. When the porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) realises that her boyfriend and band mate may not be what she needs, her creativity helps her mourn that relationship and become someone she never thought she could or even wanted to be. Just as lifelike in its unlikeliness is the musical pairing of Rosita and Gunther, the eccentric and hyper-dynamic German pig, which doesn’t go smoothly but results in odd and inspiring changes in both characters.
Shifts in temperament are echoed in the film’s undiscriminating soundtrack, navigating playfully between modern pop (the censoring of Nicki Minaj’s crude lyrics is cleverly and happily dodged) and old classics, in particular with the charming but arrogant crooner Mike (Seth MacFarlane) whose rendition of My Way is pure swooning material. Modern musicals tend to follow Baz Luhrmann’s perilous path of remixing hits by altering their genre, often showing a deeply confusing and offensive misunderstanding of what made the original song so successful. There is no such butchering here. Every register is respected and matches a personality. Putting together Katy Perry and Sinatra, Jennings quietly varnishes his exploration of life and passion with a subtle humanism, offering a point of entry for all tastes and dreams.
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