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Review: ‘Sing’ Doesn’t Just Play The Standards, It Lowers Them

The studio that brought you "Hop" and "Minions" continues their incredibly profitable assault on feature-length animation.

“Sing”

Before we talk about “Sing,” let’s talk about Satan. Remember the scene in “Broadcast News” when Albert Brooks tries to convince Holly Hunter that her handsome new crush is Lucifer? She dismisses him, but Brooks is undeterred. He argues that the most insidious thing about true evil is that it comes to you like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. “He’ll never do an evil thing! He will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance.”

I’m semi-serious here. Born from the blood money earned by 20th Century Fox atrocities like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Horton Hears a Who!,” Illumination Entertainment has been working toward a movie this cynical and creatively bankrupt since “Ice Age” executive producer Chris Meledandri founded the company in 2007. It was always just a matter of time.

READ MORE: How They Animated ‘Sing’ With a Live-Action Vibe Like ‘The Commitments’ — Video

For Pixar, story is everything. For Illumination, story is a lubricant for cross-promotional opportunities. Hyperactivity, constant noise, and calculated cuteness reign supreme. They came out of the gate swinging with “Despicable Me,” but that reasonably clever comedy about an evil genius with a heart of gold would prove to be their crowning achievement.

It would also prove to be their downfall. That film’s breakout success (as well as that of its bumbling yellow Minions) steered the studio toward craven greed with reckless abandon. “The Lorax,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Minions,” “The Secret Life of Pets” — their subsequent products have enough moments of charm and visual wit that only serve to highlight the creative bankruptcy around them. The movies prove considerably less memorable than their marketing campaigns; “Minions” was conceived in a $600 million orgy of cross-promotional publicity.

“Sing”

As a business model, it works. While they fall well short of, say, the average gross of a Pixar film ($634 million), none of them cost more than $76 million; none have grossed less than $348 million. Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli is all but out of business, and the latest film from Laika fell short of $50 million at the domestic box office. It’s like these people are on a profitable suicide mission to lower our standards for animated filmmaking, bit by little bit.

If that is their goal, then “Sing” is the Platonic ideal of an Illumination movie. It’s a profoundly soulless piece of work that shines a light on the mediocrity they foist upon the children of the world.

A jukebox musical for the age of “Carpool Karaoke,” our story begins in a city entirely populated by animals. And that’s where its resemblance to “Zootopia” ends, since that felt like a city designed by animals for animals. This is a perpetually sunny metropolis that looks like it was designed by the same committees that brought us outdoor malls. It’s the home of Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a delusional koala who’s defined by his undying love for this business we call show. Buster was seduced by the stage when he was just a kid (or whatever they call baby koalas), and he refuses to abandon the theatre that he inherited from his father, even if audiences have done so en masse. “Wonder and magic don’t come easy,” he sighs.

But, our furry little hero has a plan! (It’s a terribly hypocritical plan that spits in the face of everything the character claims to admire about the arts, but it’s a plan). He’s going to hold a singing competition, since nothing preserves the wonder and magic of the theater like invitingamateurs to cover an assortment of disposable pop songs, presumably chosen for no other reason than the fact that Universal already owned the rights. (The selection includes an occasional something by Bowie or the Beatles; this movie winks at adults with real music the way that Pixar winks at adults with good writing.) It’s as though writer-director Garth Jennings watched “American Idol” and decided it was ground zero for the golden age of television. 

However, Buster doesn’t really love the theater. He loves his theater, much in the same way as Hollywood studios don’t seem to love the movies so much as they do multiplexes. “Nobody wants to see the old shows,” the koala laments, but that doesn’t inspire him to change their minds or broker a compromise between art and commerce. On the contrary, it motivates him to sell out as hard as he can.

When Buster’s secretary (an ancient green iguana voiced by Jennings himself) accidentally drops her glass eye on the boss’ keyboard, the resulting typo sees the prize money spike from $1,000 to $100,000. The next morning, every animal in town is lined up on the sidewalk. It’s greed that first brings everyone together.

“Sing”

Jennings introduces his zoo-sized cast at such a whirlwind pace that kids won’t have time to blink, let alone lose interest. The symphony of one-note characters includes Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a porcine housewife who just wants a brief respite from the exhaustion of raising 25 little piglets. There’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a kid gorilla who would rather steal the spotlight than join his dad’s gang of thieves. There’s Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk-rock porcupine whose talent is undercut by her cheating boyfriend and bandmate. Meena (Tori Kelly), is a pathologically shy teenage elephant that can only sing in the shower, while Mike (Seth MacFarlane, further weaponizing his Sinatra shtick) is a gambling mouse who behaves like the adopted member of an actual rat pack. He talks too much, while the scantily clad female mouse for whom he thirsts doesn’t have a single line of dialogue (a sexist oversight that at least spares some poor actress from the indignity of having to voice the character).

The characters’ species seem to have been assigned at random, as the film almost never takes the animals’ unique qualities into account — the biggest animal has the smallest ego, the smallest animal has the biggest ego, and that’s about as deep as it goes. Despite its manic pacing, “Sing” doesn’t have time for nuance or feeling — how could it, when it’s squeezing in more than 65 brainless covers from the last four decades of popular music? (In a nod to its target audience, however, most were culled from the last five years.)

The film compensates by shearing its singers down to the bare minimum. Mike the mouse has an arched eyebrow to communicate his snide and smarmy persona. Johnny wears a jacket to suggest his gangster roots (you can almost hear the studio executives musing if that choice might be too polarizing). Buster looks like a koala. Rosita looks like a pig. In the rare instances where the movie dares to include more than one animal from the same species, the creatures are almost completely indistinguishable.

Matthew McConaughey in Sing

“Sing”

Nobody expected “Sing” to match the pathos or visual wit of “BoJack Horseman,” but it would have been nice for its characters to meet the depth of “Mr. Ed.” This pageant of kooky critters may aspire to be a kid-friendly Christopher Guest movie, but it’s too precise and predetermined to harness that kind of energy, and ends up cleaving more to the overstuffed, underwritten busyness of late-career Garry Marshall (R.I.P.). It’s as though Jennings took the stuff of a great children’s movie and surgically removed everything that made it warm and lovable, leaving behind a sticky residue of processed cuteness and raw marketability. Jennings is a talented director; it’s hard to imagine how the man behind “Son of Rambow” and a handful of the best music videos ever made (e.g. Blur’s “Coffee & TV” and Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower”) could make something so dim.

It’s a shame that “Sing” is such a bonfire of the inanities, because every cast member has a dynamite singing voice. From Johansson’s familiar husk to MacFarlane’s overly familiar croon, these performers often make the film as pleasant to listen to as it is painful to watch. Especially Egerton. He may have been a lot more fun as Eddie the Eagle than as Johnny the Gorilla, but the once and future Kingsman has a serious set of pipes.

It’s sadistic to force him to sing Sam Smith, or to waste Scarlett Johansson on “Call Me Maybe,” but the one original song will have you crying for the covers, and — in a classic case of terrible food and such small portions — it’s still disappointing that the musical performances are cut to ribbons. You hear them in 30-second snippets, like the movie is an iTunes preview for the soundtrack your kids will force you to buy when it’s over. How is it that none of the characters duet? That none of their plot lines meaningfully interact? Maybe that’s what sequels are for.

But if this pandering film is too busy singing to have much to say, there’s a semi-interesting idea or two amidst the noise. Perhaps the most palpable is the notion that some pop music is valuable because it’s generic, not despite it. Anything so universal is imbued with a certain power, but some of these subplots — Meena’s in particular — channel a measure of authentic, Walmart-approved wisdom about how one song can be uniquely internalized by an infinite number of people. “Firework” isn’t just a hit because it’s catchy; it also fits all of our lives as malleably as a magical pair of jeans. That chorus resonates as strongly with an overworked housewife as it does a nervous teenage girl. Not everyone has a great voice, “Sing” argues, but we all need to be heard.

READ MORE: ‘Storks’: How Looney Tunes Animation Meets the Coen Brothers’ ‘Raising Arizona’

So hear this: “Sing” is a film that’s designed to placate children rather than enrich or inspire them. Illumination’s target audience may be too young to know how awful their latest movie is, but they’ll never watch it when they grow older, they’ll never cherish it as a source of nostalgia. They’ll simply grow up expecting less of the movies, less of the world around them, and less of themselves. No big deal.

And hey, some of these characters are cute! And it’s fun to hear famous people sing. So what if the koala is running a carwash! It’s just a cartoon. Relax. That herky-jerky Laika stuff seems kinda weird, don’t you think? What the hell is a “Kubo,” anyway? “How the Grinch Stole Christmas?” Now those are words I’ve heard, in that order, before! “Despicable Me 3?” Sounds like an afternoon I won’t have to hire a babysitter. “The Secret Life of Pets 2?” What is that dog still not telling us?

Flash over substance. Flash over substance. Until the light is so bright that Illumination is all we can see.

Grade: D-

“Sing” opens in theaters on December 21.

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Comments

Corypheus

My, the anger in this review is delicious. I only saw the trailer for this twice (first for Kubo, second for Moana) and while they were both different, I had the same reaction each time: Cringing and gagging. Illumination needs a serious kick in the gonads for them to stop it with their relentless marketing and basic looking animation.

    Cruzaroni

    RACIST CRAP AIMED AT KIDS
    Why are the racist stereotypes of Black Men portrayed by big black Gorillas?
    Why aren’t the police portrayed as PIGS?… Perhaps that would be insulting.
    Kids learn racism and this is an example of a subtle fun message about Black Men.

      Andy

      Have you watched the film? The gorilla is not portrayed as black pp.

      Kassandra Smith

      Like a wise man once said to mike: “Like you can do better pipsqueak” my responce to all of the haters like seriously….”THIS MOVIE IS RACIST” it’s really not you shouldn’t get butt hurt over everything :// i mean grow up. And before you accuse me of being “racist” the actor of Johnny isn’t black, nor is meant to be implied as such, like it was beautiful, it touched my heart and i felt something, and I’m a cold hearted person i feel nothing. Learn to enjoy the little things than thinking negatively.

      Kassandra Smith

      A) the gorillas aren’t meant to be portrayed being black or white or whatever thir flucking gorillas, stop getting butthurt :// grow up
      B) the guy in the helicopter whos a cop WAS A PIG, but you don’t see cops all like “THATS RUDE…THATS MEAN” like no, they have better things to do than worry about a CHILDERENS MOVIE. Do we really need to cretic this? Hey if the kids love is, let it be. If you gonna be creticing CHILDERENS movies, cretic dora then I’d love to see your review on it…lemme guess “OH ITS A BAD EXAMPLE CAUSE DORA IS LET OUT ON HER OWN TALKING TO STRANGERS” -_-…s-seriously…wow…im soooooo concered. Even so kids don’t even notice stuff like that! All they care about is how funny and fun it is to watch.

Gerardo

Holy macaroni, what is your deal with Illumination. It’s less like a review and more like an a vegence letter. Good article though.

Josh

Wow. That’s the worst trashing ever. And particularly incomprehensible as this guy gave the boring and totally superfluous “Finding Dory:Let’s Print Some More Money” a B+.

Mackenna Caren

God… you must be such an ass, I get its your job to criticize movies, but it’s an animated film for children, not a diabolical film conspiracy. The ultimate goal is to make money and entertain children, an I feel like you wrote this article disregarding those basic ideas. It’s like you hardly reviewed this movie at all, and instead went on a rant. All I wanted to know is if the movie was cute and funny. This review has an awful lot of negativity and it’s not even about the content of the movie!

    Josh

    He trashed it to bring down Sing’s score on Metacritic. Probably pissed off that boring Finding Dory didn’t score a Golden Globe nod and Sing did.

Julie Matthews-Hammerstein

Ah, another pessimistic review by a film critic who uses the guise of big words and concepts to seem intellectual. If it’s not foreign and 5 hours long with subtitles and no well known actors it’s automatically most likely going to be shit on.

Donnie

Good on you about illumination studios, they seriously need to take bigger risks and not spew out mediocre films such as this and life of pets, unfortunately though this will still do well in the box office regardless of quality because it’s the guys behind the yellow turds.

Diane Thompson

Wth is the this world every thing have got to be got Dan illuminate I am so tired of hearing this got dam bull shit about every thing I watch

Rowelle

I don’t understand why so many people are trying so hard to defend mediocrity. It’s hilarious and incredibly sad. Did you even watch the movie, or are you just mad at a review that you think is “unfair.” Great review, David.

Ryan gormack

Wow just wow.
Hqte much?
Did you watch the movie or juat went out saw it was made by illuminate and decided to just rambling on how much you hate them.

Alex

I took my son to see this movie and I’m pretty sure it gave him ADD.

Dan Silverman

I watched this film and this review is completely comprehensive, insightful, and accurate, THANK YOU. I am shocked at the relatively positive reviews on this monstrous, cynical ploy to make boatloads of cash. Illumination, we expect more heart from you. Up your game.

Konner

LOL at this review…kids will “expect less of themselves” because of Sing?? Get a grip, dude. I saw this movie and you’re really reaching on a lot of your criticism. I actually liked it. And the final songs (the best part of the movie) aren’t 30-second snippets; they’re basically entire songs. Also, Illumination’s box office is generally equivalent to, or sometimes exceeding, Pixar. Maybe check your facts instead of spouting your preconceived notions? And oh yeah, “story is everything” at Pixar, especially Cars 2, Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, the way overrated Finding Dory…and they’re definitely making Toy Story 4, Cars 3, and Incredibles 2 for the “story,” right?? I get that you have an axe to grind with Illumination but at least be fair.

    Carlos

    You might want to check YOUR facts, dude. The Good Dinosaur was Disney Animation Studios, not Pixar. Incidentally, I think most serious animation fans will take anything (including the truly awful Cars 2) from Pixar over just about anything from Illumination, Despicable Me notwithstanding.

      Pixar

      Pixar IS Disney.
      Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 at a valuation of $7.4 billion

Manny

Sing sucked. The song choices were dreadful, the story boring, the characters poorly animated and the acting meh. I’m suprised nobody is knocking the songs… for a movie aimed at the 5-year-old set, why use Elton John, Queen and Cat Stevens (?!). Even the Taylor Swift/Katy Perry/”Call Me Maybe” stuff is a few years old now, kids have heard it to death at this point. And a big set piece is an original sung by ScarJo that nobody’s heard and isn’t very catchy either? Waayy too much whining koala, too.

Zach

Go figure… another hipster dork who can’t grasp the concept that not every children’s movie is going to be a Wes Anderson film. They’re putting out movies to make money? Well no shit! Of course they’re out to make money; what studio isn’t? I saw the film and as a 30 year adult, of course I thought it was terrible. But guess what? My 3 year old daughter and 6 year old nephew loved it, and just in case you didn’t realize, they don’t make these films for the enjoyment of adults. Get over yourself, idiot.

Mayssa

This article sounds like the rant of a very very bitter divorcee.

Mark

I though this film was excellent, feel good factor of 10. Maybe this review is a reflection of yourself and it is you that is of no substance. “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”

Mark O'S

After reading this review, the character you appear to resemble most in the movie is Ash’s boyfriend.

LukeHighLife

“Horton hears a who?” an atrocity?! Wow – I thought that was a really nice film on a lazy Sunday afternoon, harsh words mate…

LukeHighLife

“Horton hears a who?” an atrocity?! Wow – I thought that was a really nice film on a lazy Sunday afternoon, harsh words mate……

AnonomousMiLady

I don’t really understand what is it with people who say Sing! was a bad movie. It’s not a bad movie at all. In my opinion, each character in the movie represents how some people are in real life: a parent who always stays at home, taking care of the children and is unable to accomplish their dream; a teen who kind of refuses to see the harsh reality about their abusive lover because they “love” them so much; another teen who is under pressure by their superiors to follow their footsteps (whether if it’s for good or bad business)and cannot live their dream because they are afraid of being a disappointment to them; a person who has crossed the line so many times now lives on the streets with no knowledge of what to do next, they only have the knowledge that got them into this mess; someone whose love towards someone/something is so great they will go great lengths to save them, even if it means disobeying the law; and finally, a teen who is so kind and gentle and full of potential but they are so shy and afraid of showing what they are capable of in fear they will mess up and people will see them negatively.
In case you haven’t noticed, I didn’t say whose who but you know which one I’m talking about. I also did not include the words “He” or “She” or suggest a gender because it doesn’t matter. It can be anyone who lives this way, maybe someone you know in real life. It is directed towards those people who live in these conditions and the film connects to them on a personal level.
If you have seen the movie (which I’m pretty this guy fell asleep through because he didn’t having his usual coffee), you would have noticed that the beginning is a little bit rushed. Now I agree that was a little annoying but once you think about it, it’s the same thing about real life. The movie does not give you time to think about what’s going on; it just says, “Here! This is happening because of this happening and this person is struggling through this and this person-!” and yadda-yadda. But that represents reality. You don’t have time to think about every person or everything in life because anything can happen and change your life, in good or bad ways. If the opportunity is there for you, then take it; but be careful because, as good as it seems, something can tear you away from it at any time. These characters take their chances and suffer the consequences when it hits them hard. I think the movie also teaches children about being aware of the consequences of taking chances because you don’t know what you’ll lose.
Now there is one topic that enrages me to NO END: RACISM. As I was in the theater, I heard some guy somewhere say something like, “Why the gorillas always be the niggas? Thas fucking bullshit.”<—(That's how he actually said it) THERE WERE CHILDREN IN THE THEATER, ALONG WITH MY NINE-YEAR-OLD SISTER! Because of what is currently going on in society, it has changed how people have been thinking and I find it depressing. It's like you can't watch a movie without thinking about racism or stereotypes. I have thought about those topics too as I watched the movie but I pushed them aside and thought, "No! I want to watch this movie without this bullshit in my head!" Can a movie no longer exist if it doesn't have this "ideas" into play? Or can we continue loving movies simply because we love them? Because they make us happy? Make us cry? A film's purpose is not only to make money; it is also to teach about history, to teach about life; to enjoy.
We live in a world where almost anything is about racism, terrorism, society, hard life. We have things that make us so happy again when we feel depressed or suicidal.
When people compare this movie to Disney's "Zootopia", it's not really the same. You might disagree and say, "No! They are exactly the same thing!" but I say no to you too. Because "Zootopia" was simply about racism and how society sees you. "Sing!" is the complete opposite: it's about leaving the thoughts and expectations of society behind; shoving it all away to follow your dream; to create a new you, A BRAND NEW YOU. I wish I could say I don't blame Disney or society for this, but I can't.
I understand I had a lot to say here but I merely wanted to defend something that made me cry so many while watching. On the Friday when I saw it, the day started out well until I found about my grades. I thought I had been doing well and keeping up with everything and staying up late to finish projects but it felt all in vain. I started crying in front of my mom and the senior guidance counselor during the meeting that day. I barely stop crying in the car as my mom drove to run an errand. I stayed in the car to rest as she and my sister went to the store but I wouldn't stop crying. I felt exhausted and wanted to give up. Bad grades were something I always had since kindergarten. But somehow I always managed to pull through each year. My mom said I had the potential to succeed and convinced the principal not to hold me back each year. I'm in my senior year, the toughest school year ever. I wanted to just give up and stop breathing or go to sleep forever. Later my mom took us to eat then went to the theater. We had seen the previews on TV and I thought it would be fun to see but I didn't ask to see it. I wanted to wait till it came out on websites. When we got out of the theater when it was finished, I felt so happier and giddy again. Animated movies have always yanked me out from falling into severe depression when I was little and it did it again. I cried so many times during the movie because of joy or sadness. I owe it to the studio who made this movie because without that movie existing, I probably would have my emotions knocked out of me.
When life hits you hard, it hits you hard. But, just like the characters, you need to find something happy and forget about what is keeping you grounded. Just once.
I know I had a lot to say but if you had time to read all this, thank you. This movie deserves to be remembered, not to be looked down upon. It should make you cry because you're happy.
Bye.

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