Illumination Entertainment is a curious entity in the world of animation. While many of the bigger animation studios today are aiming to break new artistic ground and push their storytelling in new directions with their animated features, Illumination sits comfortably with prioritizing cartoonish slapstick and traditional silliness over plunging into deeper waters. It hasn’t exactly hurt them, as the Despicable Me studio has consistently produced box office successes, even if their output is on the more mundane side when stacked against its competitors. But does Illumination’s newest feature, Sing, break the mold for the studio?
The short answer to that is a disappointing no. Though on the more positive side of things, Sing is a better movie than its rather atrocious trailers let on.
Sing takes place in a world of anthropomorphic animals. Not exactly the most original setup for an animated film, and unlike Disney’s 2016 animated feature Zootopia, Sing doesn’t really do anything new or fun with the concept. It’s an animated film, so the characters are animals. Fair enough, I suppose.
What is interesting about Sing’s setup is that – unlike most animated features – Sing is an ensemble film. A koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) owns a musical theater, but has never seen a hit make its way to his stage. As such, the theater is in financial troubles, so Buster decides to host a singing competition in hopes of reigniting interest in his theater.
Here’s where the ensemble setup comes in, as Sing tells multiple character arcs within its overarching plot through the competitors in said competition as well as Buster himself: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who abandoned her dreams of being a singer to become a housewife, and sees the competition as a means to live her lost dream. Ash (Scarlett Johansen) is a punk-goth porcupine teenager who wants to show her potential as a songwriter. Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is an arrogant street performer mouse who simply wants to win a lot of money. Meena (Tori Kelly) is an unspeakably shy teenage elephant who wants to overcome her fears. And Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a young gorilla and the son of a criminal who wants to give up his family’s life of crime to be a singer.
Admittedly, the characters and their story arcs are nothing we haven’t seen many times before in animated films, but Sing actually manages to juggle all these narratives surprisingly well, with each character and story getting a good amount of time to develop.
On the downside of things, many elements of the film’s plot can feel a little dated. The entire setup of a singing competition feels a bit late to the Capitalizing-on-American-Idol’s-Popularity party, and the sheer excess in popular songs (many of which are only heard in seconds-long snippets) feels more akin to the animated films from a decade ago than the more original music-focused animations of today. Again, the film ultimately works better than the marketing would have had you believe due to the focus being more on the character arcs, but you can’t help but feel that much of the film feels incredibly… 2004-ish.
On the animation front, Sing is quite pleasing to look at. The animation is fluid and detailed, and the character designs (while maybe lacking in variety when two of the same animal are onscreen) are fun and colorful. The visuals help liven up the film even in its weaker, more predictable moments.
Overall, Sing is decent enough entertainment that may trend on Illumination’s familiar ground of solid but unspectacular features, but it does provide some good fun when it wants. Younger audiences will certainly enjoy it, and while it may not have the adult sophistication of Zootopia, it’s lighthearted charms might win over some older audiences as well.