You may remember that I’m not a big fan of Illumination Entertainment’s films, so far, and I especially didn’t care for their shameless Toy Story clone (rip-off), The Secret Life of Pets. The lack of originality in that film was borderline insulting and, combined with the lackluster Despicable Me series, didn’t fill me with much hope for Sing. The trailers for Sing have been unquestionably entertaining and amusing, but they’ve also stayed mostly focused on the auditions, much as the marketing for The Secret Life of Pets focused almost entirely on the one scene where the pets let loose after their owners leave for the day, leaving me to wonder if the rest of Sing would have anything else worthwhile to offer. Still, I’m always open to giving a movie a chance and that’s what I did, today.
As the film begins, and then proceeds beyond the much-hyped auditions, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Unlike Pets, Sing contains a unique story (at least for an animated film), so it automatically gets a boost for that, alone. It might have been a little more timely before “American Idol” was removed from the air (though some of its pretenders to the throne still persist), but I won’t fault Illumination too much for being slightly behind the times. A fresh film idea is a fresh film idea.
The storytelling is kept simple, with each of the principles being introduced, one-by-one. Each of them has their own story and character arc that then merge with the others via the singing competition. None of them are fleshed out to the degree that we’re accustomed to from Illumination’s top competitors in the world of animated cinema, but the trade off is that we get a group of characters who are put on level playing ground, with no real idea how it’s going to play out at the end. That’s a good thing and animated films, in general, have gotten less predictable in recent years. Sing is no exception.
Where the film doesn’t rise above previous efforts by Illumination is in its humor and dialogue. I half-chuckled perhaps twice throughout the entirety of the film, which is every bit as devoid of wit and comedic timing as its Illumination predecessors (though I enjoyed the J-Pop foxes). The studio almost entirely aims its humor at children (or adults with childlike sensibilities and mentalities), abandoning the parents and film lovers in the crowd through a series of slapstick attempts and an abundance of toilet humor. Until Illumination fixes this, they’ll continue to make money while falling short of taking home any awards.
The characters also have very little of interest to say. They’re most interesting when singing, which is also when – in all but one case – they’re spouting words not written by the filmmakers. It’s not the content of their message, but the uninspired delivery of it. The voice actors are a talented and capable bunch, but they can only work with what they’re given. In fact, it’s the cast that injects the material with enough life to keep it interesting. Even the kids in the crowd that I saw the film with weren’t laughing at the “jokes” but they also never grew restless. That’s due to a combination of the animation and the voice acting.
Speaking of the animation, it’s strong, but not Disney/Pixar quality. Disney Animation Studios’ animated models, in particular, have gotten to the point that they act better than many real people. Illumination isn’t yet at that level. But it’s good enough and the designs are beautiful with plenty of texture and eye appeal.
The music is a lot of fun and there’s a good mix of newer tunes and classics from years gone by. The film builds to the final competitive performance but – without going into detail – it takes a turn that I wasn’t expecting. This is of course good in the sense that, again, it was unpredictable. But it’s also used as an excuse to – in a way – bail on the original premise of the film. This is frustrating as a film should always deliver on its promises and it could have coveyed a nice message along the way. But, as the film was playing out, I was wondering how a winner would be chosen and the others – all likable – would be designated “losers”. Well, the director/writer Garth Jennings had a plan for it, though I prefer to call it a “cop out”.
At this point, I was starting to turn on the film. It had been enjoyable enough – and certainly loads better than Pets, but it was beginning to feel like another example of Illumination failing to deliver. But then the characters started rolling out their final performances. Having each chosen a song of personal empowerment, based on their own individual story arcs, the climax delivers an emotionally satisfying and resonant conclusion, despite the sleight-of-hand bait-and-switch tactic that Jennings pulls over on the viewer. I can’t entirely decide if it’s a fair exchange, but I can say that, ultimately, I was happy with the end result.
In totality, Sing is an entertaining little film with some strong messages of confidence and perseverance. The execution isn’t as masterful as films coming from other studios – at most, it’s the fifth-best animated film of the year – but it’s easily Illumination’s best film, so far, even if it won’t likely approach the box office success of the far-lesser Despicable Me. Seeing the endearing characters learn about themselves by way of the singing competition was certainly satisfying and will hopefully steer some kids out there towards the arts as a form of expression and an extracurricular activity. If you’re down for an animated family film, you could do much worse than Sing.
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