Sing, a Sad Meditation on Show Business, for Kids

The Illumination Entertainment comedy stars Matthew McConaughey as a koala desperately seeking a musical hit.

Universal Pictures

Midway through Sing, while the plot is limping dejectedly through its motions, you may find yourself wondering what, exactly, is happening. Was this sad but honest meditation on the fickle nature of show business originally pitched as being quite so bleak? Was it always supposed to be animated? Was it intended to be a kid’s movie? Is that why all the characters are animals? Is that Scarlett Johansson playing a crested porcupine punk-rocker in an emotionally abusive relationship? Is this the best work Matthew McConaughey’s done in years?

The concept of the movie is so baffling that it seems to have been cobbled together, madlibs-style, from pieces of other projects, and girded with a bewildering array of A-list actors who mistook filming for a hazy karaoke night at Reese Witherspoon’s ranch in Ojai. McConaughey plays Buster Moon, a producer and a koala, whose beloved theater is crumbling due to a series of ill-advised flops. In a wild attempt to save it, he decides to stage a singing competition, offering a grand prize of $1,000 to the winner. But his assistant, a myopic iguana (Garth Jennings, who also directed), accidentally adds two zeros to that figure on promotional posters, resulting in a stampede of mammals all after the cash winnings, which don’t exist, and a quandary for Buster, who’s broke.

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.