On the face of it, the new animated jukebox musical Sing springs from the lineage of TV’s reality smashes American Idol, as well as its initial descendants, The Voice and Glee. But the film’s true spirit animal is Kermit the Frog. Like The Muppet Show, Sing proposes that’s vaudeville’s still not dead.
The world of Sing, like the world of Disney’s Zootopia, resembles ours, were it populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals. The ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey plays Lester Moon, a down-on-his-luck koala bear impresario who makes one last, desperate grab at the big brass ring by planning a live singing competition. When Lester accidentally announces far more prize money than he can legitimately offer, the city’s hidden talents, and not so talented, flock to Moon’s theater.
And, indeed, it could easily be mistaken for the Muppet Theater, as it is a place of magically funny theatrical mishaps and literally fuzzy reinterpretations of popular songs. Sing primarily hums along on the strength of its more than 85 greatest hits from the greatest of pop stars, then arrives at an original song by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande, "Faith."
“Dream big dreams,” Moon enthuses, and the songs become the fodder for both blackout sketches (like a snail singing, from atop a microphone, “Ride Like the Wind”) and grand production numbers (like a mouse—voiced by Seth MacFarlane—going full Sinatra on “My Way”). Resembling a karaoke-of-the-stars Glee finale, Sing begins to feel like something of a pop culture echo chamber, making it tempting to dismiss. But director Garth Jennings (better known for live-action films like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) keeps an eye out for the film’s senses of humor and absurdity (Reese Witherspoon’s domestic pig must tend to 25 kids while pursuing her singing dream).
Stars like Witherspoon and MacFarlane are already known quantities as double-threat actor-singers, as is ringer Jennifer Hudson. Less obvious participants include Scarlett Johansson as a punk-rocking porcupine and Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) as a mountain gorilla with formidable pipes (who knew Egerton had this voice on him?). When Egerton’s Cockney-accented thug makes good, singing “I’m Still Standing” at an audition, it’s the kind of exuberant moment where a musical choice connects to a character choice. Sure, it’s a lazy screenwriting shortcut, but it also means a hit song magnified through a new lens.
Jennings lends the proceedings energy to spare, as seen in the soaring, swooping “camerawork” of the animation. The inspiration-minded Sing may not amount to much—a salute to theater and showmanship, a simple tale of self-empowerment and group spirit—but it is up with people, or, rather, animals in ways that will delight kids and adults alike.