‘Sing” is brought to us by Illumination Entertainment — the animation studio that brought the “Despicable Me” series and last year’s sleeper hit “The Secret Life of Pets.” In many ways it’s “La-La Land” with animals. In a color-filled, LA-like town inhabited by non-Homo sapiens in human clothing, a koala bear entrepreneur named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) gets a bright idea on how to restore his failing theater: hold a singing contest and invite all the talented locals. To drum up interest, he offers a cash prize and a chance for the winner to become a professional.
This isn’t a novel idea by any stretch of the imagination, but to Buster it’s like a megawatt light bulb just switched on. As the centerpiece of “Sing,” unlike real-life koala bears, who spend most of their lives sleeping, Buster is a furry bundle of indefatigable energy and boundless optimism. His plan is to get the contest going, unearth local talent and resurrect his beloved theater to its former glory. As Buster puts it: “Real talent from real life — that’s what audiences want!”
Lovable Buster makes it easy to root for him but then virtually every character in “Sing” has a back story worthy of its own musical. There’s Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) — a mother pig with oodles of kids, who dreams of a life beyond childrearing and housework. Her husband Norman (Nick Offerman) is oblivious to his wife’s aspirations and has no inkling of her needs. It’s only when he actually sees her on stage belting out Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” that he realizes what a bombshell he has married.
Then there’s gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), a reluctant member of his dad’s street gang who really hopes to get away from robberies and shootings to become a singer.
Teenage porcupine named Ash (Scarlett Johansson), meanwhile, is a rock star in the making, with badass guitar moves to prove it.
Speaking of which, the soundtrack is awesome — in the way you just know a gazillion people have already downloaded it to listen to as they jog in the morning or get in line for coffee. “Sing” was released in the U.S. as a Christmas movie, about a week before the death of George Michael, but “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is still on the list.
The soundtrack also pays respects to the late David Bowie and Freddie Mercury with “Under Pressure” and Leonard Cohen with “Hallelujah.” It’s too bad Prince isn’t on the list — I personally would have liked to hear Johnny perform “Purple Rain.”
A lot of other 20th-century greats are, however, here: Stevie Wonder (“Faith”), Paul Anka (“My Way”) as well as the Lennon-McCartney classic “Golden Slumbers.” Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to keep the parents and adults as happy as the kids, which is something Illumination seems to go out of its way to do.
Like the “Despicable Me” series, there’s an element of cynicism in the way some situations are depicted (Rosita’s home life is a case in point). Issues of gender politics and money matters are raised as well, and despite the fact that the entire cast are animals, the struggles, problems and ambitions drawn in the story are wholly human.
Interestingly, Dentsu and Fuji Television Network head off the list of production companies and there’s a smattering of Japanese in the dialogue (you’re going to hear kawaii on several occasions). Could this be a reason why “Sing” sometimes comes off as trying too hard to be winsome and ingratiating?
Still, “Sing” is a hugely enjoyable experience and surely there’s no harm in losing yourself for a time in all the music and glittering lights. That some of the most moving moments of “Sing” are depicted by two pigs in sequinned leotards, and that an elephant can make you weep with her soulful rendition of “Hallelujah” — well, that only enhances the wonder.