52nd Chicago International Film Festival Musicals program special presentation
The new animated musical “Sing” from Illumination Entertainment bills itself as containing more than 85 memorable tracks from legendary performing artists and one new original song collaboration from Ariana Grande and Stevie Wonder. When you divide the 110 minutes of the film by 86 songs, that averages out roughly to one song every 78 seconds. A mashup like that plays well as a recurring Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake bit on late-night television, but it’s exhausting and tiresome when stretched to nearly two hours.
Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, an enterprising and blindly upbeat theater owner koala bear trying to keep one of the last old playhouses in town open. Dwindling audiences and show quality have the theater empty and in shoddy condition. Moon concocts a scheme of a musical talent show to drum up business, but a clerical error from his elderly, glass-eyed iguana secretary Ms. Crawley (director Garth Jennings himself) changes the prize money from $1,000 to $100,000. Moon certainly doesn’t have the money and tries to squeeze his rich best friend sheep Eddie (the instantly deflating John C. Reilly) and his benefactor grand mother Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Saunders) to patron the show and the theater.
With the toothpaste out of the tube, Buster can’t and won’t cancel the show when waves of potential contestants come out in droves to compete, bringing a swell of media coverage for the theater. Zooming introductions and towering crane shots that would make Peter Jackson queasy highlight the other anthropomorphic characters that will become the anointed finalists. A gang member gorilla (Taron Egerton), portly pig housewife and her assigned eccentric dance partner (Reese Witherspoon and Nick Kroll), emo-punk crested porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), crooner mouse (Seth McFarlane), shy Asian elephant with stage fright (Tori Kelly), and inescapable red panda manga girls comprise Buster’s ensemble. They all embody animal stereotypes that are a complete backwards step and slap in the face after Disney’s high-minded “Zootopia.”
When side characters in the movie call a singing competition a “terrible idea” and asks “who wants to see one of those,” they are taking the words right out of our mouths. “Sing” may have an A-list cast that also includes Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, Peter Serafinowicz, Jennifer Hudson, and Rhea Perlman, but they are all cashing paychecks and mailing enough talent in to overrun a post office. It is a film that asks you to pay $9 for something you can watch with humans at nauseum on the parade of TV offerings like “The Voice” and “American Idol.”
Writer/director Garth Jennings (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the folks at Illumination overstuff the scant moments of plot when a character isn’t singing with dumb serendipity of simple destinies and manufactured perils that you can see being corrected for the sake of being corrected a mile away. Any emotionality is terribly forced, filled with cliches, and lacks any spirit to be plucky. Nothing lingers or holds. Nothing is subtle, natural, and, worst of all, intelligent.
If all you want is “Refrain Fest” of your favorite 2014 songs and overplayed classics (the long production of a computer-animated film didn’t know David Bowie and Leonard Cohen were going to die this year), you’ll get a jukebox and Spotify playlist exploding in your ears with “Sing.” The one part of the film that delivers is the showy finale, but you’re so beaten to death by the previous 75 or so songs that it lacks the next level of power. Had the film been patiently built to that peak instead of throwing every fun song possible into the blender, they might have had something. Less is more. Sing five, hell even ten, songs well instead of 86 at random and indiscernible quality.
LESSON #1: YOU CAN'T LIE YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS-- If you don't have the money, cancel the show. If you can't pay your bills, find other revenue. Don't cheat and steal. Lies catch up.
LESSON #2: ASPIRING ARTISTS NEED MERELY A CHANCE AND PLACE TO PERFORM-- Stating the blatantly obvious through seven main performers, every aspiring artist essentially has the same same dream only from different backgrounds and perspectives. We’ve seen the highs, lows, and bloopers of “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” auditions for over a decade. Blue-collar commoners with beautiful talents inside need shows and opportunities to share it with the world.
LESSON #3: THE LOVE AND PLACE FOR MUSICAL THEATER-- Buster Moon’s bullish personal passion for musical theater celebrates an shrinking artistic medium that still deserves a place. Massive stadiums and outdoor concert venues can pack all of the speakers it wants to blast its lyrics all the way to the lawn seats with power, but it’s mechanical substitution for real thing. Hearing a great vocalist and cadre of performers under the spotlight resonate through the walls and domes of a theater indoors is a special and unmatched experience. Go support your local performing arts instead of buying this movie ticket.