There’s a peculiar undercurrent that flows through Sing, the new animated film from Illumination Entertainment (the studio behind the Despicable Me franchise as well as the thoroughly enjoyable Secret Life of Pets). It hits you about a third of the way through when you realize that Buster Moon, the energetic theater-owning koala bear voiced by Matthew McConnaughey, is a deeply flawed individual. You see, Moon is trying to revive his failing theater, and he’s doing it by hosting a singing competition. Except he’s accidentally promised a prize much pricier than he can afford, so he’s flying by the seat of his pants, holding his dream — and the dreams of his contestants — together with a mix of hope, cleverness, and outright lies. He’s a charmer, to be sure, but he’s also a relentless huckster, a conman willing to break every rule and risk the dreams of everyone around him.
That’s the undercurrent that separates Sing from many other child-oriented animated film. Several of its characters are deeply flawed, broken people trying to pull their lives back together. A pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) trying to figure out whether she can be more than just a wife to her inattentive husband and a mother to her 25 piglets. A weaselly con mouse (Seth MacFarlane) just trying to make a fast buck. A punk rocker porcupine (Scarlett Johansson, one of the film’s best characters) trying to live outside the shadow of her rocker boyfriend while also not selling out by becoming a pop princess. A young gorilla (Taron Egerton) trying to escape the life of crime his father (Peter Serafinowicz) is leading him into, who inadvertently ends up responsible for his dad’s imprisonment. They’re a cast of broken dreamers and crooked schemers. It feels, on the surface, to be a profoundly cynical picture.
Yet it’s not. Instead, Sing works with those very human flaws, creating a story that’s quite clever and maybe a little bit smarter than the average kiddie fare. Yes, they’re all kind of busted in their own way. But they’re also dreamers who don’t quit, and even at the end, when things go calamitously, spectacularly wrong and it appears that all they’ve worked for is in ruins, they band together. They cast aside their differences and they work together. It’s goddamn adorable.
It’s a big part of what makes Sing work so well. It’s a funny, slickly produced film filled with a great collection of songs that are enjoyably covered by a group of solid voices. It’s breezy and fast-paced, funny and brightly colored, with a lovely, if fairly uncomplicated animation style. It’s fun, and it does so by folding the characters’ flaws into its story. No, it’s not a great work of philosophy, but as far as that “hold on to your dreams and believe in yourself” genre of kids movies, it’s a damn fine entry.
Sing isn’t going to be the most challenging kid’s movie you take the little ones to see, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s cute, it’s got heart, it’s smart and it tells the story of a group of dreamers who don’t quit. That some of them aren’t perfect people is, if anything, something that works in its favor. It’s got great performances and music. My kid was stomping his feet and clapping his hands at the grand finale, even the bitterest among us will have a bastard of a time not getting the warm fuzzies from it.