The auditions, nevertheless, bring him a motley crew of wannabe stars: Rosita (Witherspoon), a neglected housewife who’s also a pig; Ash (Johansson), the aforementioned punk-rock porcupine; Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a mean and arrogant mouse; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla with a soft heart; and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant who suffers from crippling stage fright. There are inevitable complications, most prompted by the fact that Buster is a terrible producer whose plan for redemption is a show featuring amateurs covering Stevie Wonder.
Sing gathers some much-needed momentum in the third act, mostly because it’s the only part that really features singing. Rather than follow the time-tested model of movie-musicals, which parcel out big numbers throughout the film to keep the audience engaged, Jennings lumps all his together in one big medley, piling Elton on top of Sinatra on top of Taylor Swift. This is the point where you might realize they only rehearsed fragments of Carly Rae Jepsen and Katy Perry in order to keep (the still estimable) licensing costs down. You might also imagine our Lady of Swift herself hitting up Moon Theatre with a cease-and-desist order given that her biggest hit of 2015 is being performed live onstage by an overweight German pig (Nick Kroll) wearing a tiny spangled leotard.
Much more baffling than the main plot of Sing is the world Jennings visualizes: a geographically accurate version of Los Angeles in which animals live in harmony, koalas are American, and gorillas are British. The computer-animated scenes of Beverly Hills mansions and suburban streets are filled with eye-catching detail, but there’s still no good reason for the abundance of species other than the fact that Zootopia was such a big hit. The conceit hums with questions, but also missed opportunities. Why have a sheep sing a Seal song? Why is Mike a mouse, given that his oeuvre is so exclusively Rat Pack numbers? How come instruments are scaled to fit the differently sized animals but microphones are one-size-fits-all?
Sing is Jennings’s first major feature since 2005’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As one half of the duo Hammer & Tongs, he’s directed a variety of music videos, including Blur’s “Coffee and TV,” which was an ingenious animated short about a milk carton looking for a missing person. So it’s strange that Sing feels so uninspired. It doesn’t seem like a concept intended to resonate particularly with kids (the ones in the screening I attended laughed exactly twice, both times at fart jokes), or one that’s sly enough to wink at all the adults in the room. It does feel like a jukebox musical without a theme. McConaughey gives Buster some unexpected pep as a character, but Sing is more half-hearted cover than genuine smash hit.