Monday, December 26, 2016

Don't You Worry 'bout a SING

Sing is the least you can do to make an inoffensive all-ages animated amusement. It’s not particularly inspired or entertaining, with none of the visual beauty of a Laika or Ghibli, the innovation of a Pixar, or the all-around crowd-pleasing nature of a Disney. Despite a host of celebrity voices and colorful shenanigans, it doesn’t even have a leg up over Trolls, the other recent jukebox karaoke musical comedy aimed at youngsters and the adults who don’t mind taking them to such things. No, Sing doesn’t have higher highs or lower lows, because it’s not trying to do as much. It’s set in a world of animals behaving like people in an expansive metropolis, but hasn’t a tenth of Zootopia’s imagination. It is filled with characters yearning to make something of themselves, but with nary the picture book psychology of an Inside Out. It finds a plucky koala (Matthew McConaughey) throwing a singing competition to save his crumbling theater – Muppets much? – and gathers a menagerie of contestants with individual little dramas and conflicts, but isn’t interested in setting up American Idol suspense. It just wants to live up to its title and sing. That’s it. And so it does.

Totally undemanding, the movie starts out like it’ll be a family friendly Altman picture, swooping around its city to find the characters who’ll be the finalists. There’s a harried hog mother (Reese Witherspoon), soulful gorilla (Taron Egerton), moody porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), sleazy rat (Seth MacFarlane), shy elephant (Tori Kelly), sparkling pig (Nick Kroll), and others who fall by the wayside as the big show approaches. That they all have little problems to overcome – stage fright, gambling debts, bad dads, and so on – is par for the course. That none of these issues derail the movie’s genial good spirit and even keel plotting contributes to its blasé sense of anodyne amiability. Some wild cards – a lazy rich sheep (John C. Reilly) whose grandmother (Jennifer Saunders) was once upon a time a theater (or, as she’d pronounce it, “thea-tah”) star – enter the proceedings just to keep churning incident between bobble-headed snippets of pop songs sung loudly and enthusiastically from the mouths of cartoon critters.

The songbook is at least somewhat admirably diverse. Animals sing hits by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Van Halen, Frank Sinatra, Nicki Minaj, Elton John, and many, many more. Remember those infomercials for multi-CD sets of “Greatest Hits,” which would reliably end with brief excerpts from songs included while a complete tracklist would scroll by in garish yellow font? That’s how many a child parked in front of the TV would get introduced to earworms of times gone by. (That and the oldies stations were formative instruments of pop knowledge.) So maybe that’s the function Sing will serve in this on-demand age, letting kids hear a broad swath of easy pop listening while their parents smile in recognition at a couple measures of, say, Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.” That we get a plot punctuating abbreviated musical numbers is too bad, as the whole thing grinds to a halt when we need to care that a mammal is cut from the competition due to his excessive flatulence or that another critter in need of money throws a car wash and uses his fur to buff and dry.

There’s really nothing else to it other than bland believe-in-yourself moralizing that’s been done better, and with more conviction, in a dozen other animated family films of the last quarter century. It has a whole colorful animal world that’s been imagined at the level of a particularly underdeveloped picture book, with not even a scrap of the visual ingenuity and clever visual gags of a Zootopia. There’s even a missed opportunity for an exploration of what these real-world singers look like in the parallel animal world. Think of all the puns left for the taking. Diana Sloth. The Beetles. Llama Summers. Weird Al Yak-ovic. Director Garth Jennings (of the decent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a decade ago) and the team at Illumination (of the Despicable Mes) are content to simply groove on the borrowed charms of fun songs to power their blandly amiable time-waster.

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