Before Sing’s animated barnyard karaokefest began in the theater, what I thought was a preview started to run. Halfway through, I thought maybe Illumination (the company behind this year’s The Secret Life of Pets and annoying juggernaut Minions) is going the way of Pixar and pre-screening short films. As a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” rang out slowly and drearily, giving all the adults in the audience Shrek flashbacks, the short eventually revealed itself as an advertisement for the NFL’s Thursday Night Football.
Heartbroken animals and a desperate song are juxtaposed with a sports solution. There was a corporate tie-in before the movie even began to roll. That’s the attitude Sing brings to the world of children’s films: sell you on flash so its particular brand of flimsy fluff can rake in the dough by selling you on everything else.
Just look at the proliferation of Minions since the franchise’s starring film; the company’s expertise lies in monetizing mediocrity. Keeping budgets relatively low and getting ludicrous returns (over a billion for Minions, and Pets is well on its way there), the focus is on crafting something inescapable, something that cages parents in rather than invites children.
The film opens in much the same way. We zoom away from an opening musical drama and spin to an audience of animals agape with wonder. Like Brian De Palma’s Dionysus in ’69 but with rounded, cartoonish animals crowding its theater seats, Sing encourages its audience to think about audiences in general rather than the performance in front of them. That begins to make sense as the movie goes on, revealing the lack of substance, imagination or fun in every facet of its filmmaking.
The ringleader of this charade is a koala enamored with show business, Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), who was gifted a theater by his hardworking father. His personal ineptitude fails to impact his career as a steady stream of donors and bank-dodging keeps his personal entitlement to the performing arts afloat.
Moon has the amazingly original idea for a singing contest to generate interest in his dying business, apparently unaware that even the popular televised versions of singing contests have been replaced with the fake thrills of drivel like Lip Sync Battle. And Sing contains the same ethos as an animated version of that show. There’s no reason for a carefully constructed entertainment commodity to risk anything less than the star quality of either songs or performers. The film forgoes its competitive basis almost immediately, focusing on the whirlwind of circumstance and absurdity surrounding the lives of its animal-housed pop stars.
There’s a pig that never learned about birth control and is, thus, overrun by her twenty-odd children, a punkupine who’s pushed to pop music because that’s just the kind of movie this is, a rodent Sinatra that gets mixed up with the Bear Mob (really), a shy elephant and an inexplicably British gorilla who’s both a getaway driver for his family’s crime syndicate and a natural-born crooner. We learn about them all in a series of sloppily written scenes without transitions between them, jumping all over the apparently crime-ridden zoo-dystopia to see these sad animals who come to the competition purely for the mistyped prize money. A few accidental extra zeroes is the only reason for the film to exist, internally and externally.
And sure, they can all sing. But that’s not really the point. If we wanted to merely hear talented singers — well, that’s why we have the music industry, right? But in the mindset of moneymaking, why wait for videos of undiscovered artists to go viral when you can buy all the talent, shove them inside some bland animals and make the videos yourself? It misunderstands the core charm of these types of shows, of virality in general, which is surprise. We want to go in expecting nothing and be blown away, seduced by the everyday and ravaged by the extraordinary.