Friday, January 20, 2017

Sing (2016)

Given its fairly fresh presence in Hollywood, it's hard to put a label on Illumination Entertainment as an animation picture studio. I mean, the Despicable Me franchise propelled them swiftly and they seem to have the ambitions to make distinct fare. I can see what they are trying to do, but who are they trying to be? Their movies have a farcical, smart-alecky, rapid-fire energy akin to Dreamworks, yet possess a genuine warmth and delicacy, more akin to Disney. It's hard to decipher whether they are trying to bridge the divide or inhabit two sensibilities simultaneously. 

This lack of a concrete, penetrable identity, from my perspective, has thus far been both limiting and liberating. They haven't that knockout film yet, but I believe they will. I don't know where they are going, but they are certainly on the right track. The Lorax, while bearing some substantial narrative flaws, came the closest to representing Seuss' style, visually. The Secret Life of Pets, while met with eye-rolling criticism, was such a lively concoction of humor, animation, characters, and voice acting that The Angry Birds Movie is still seething with envy. And their most recent film with the most humble, understated premise they have conceived is their best non-Despicable Me effort to date: Sing.

The film begins by introducing us to Buster Moon, a koala whose love of the theater eventually led him to open his own theater. However, he has produced nothing but flops and has found himself in considerable financial ruin. With the theater on the verge of shutting down, he has one more idea to save it: to host a singing competition with a grand prize, which later becomes $100,000. The contenders are Rosita, a pig who carries the hefty responsibility of caring for her negligent husband and their twenty-five piglets, Mike, an arrogant, self-absorbed, street-performing mouse, Gunter, a flamboyant, dancing pig, who becomes paired up with Rosita, Johnny, a gorilla who is involved with mobsters, Ash, a porcupine who struggles to escape her boyfriend's shadow and upkeep her own artistry, and Meena, an elephant with oft-debilitating stage fright. As the contestants battle their own struggles, Buster struggles to come through with the prize money, as everyone works to put together a dazzling show.

If there is one pervading vice I find in Illumination Entertainment, particularly their two recent films, it's their timidness and lack of zest in their beginnings. The first fifteen minutes of this film is slow, somewhat off-putting, not very funny, and it basically lays out the arcs of all of the characters, making it fiercely predictable. It doesn't spoil anything, but if you have any predictions of these characters within the first fifteen minutes, *spoiler,* you're probably correct.

Conversely, however, one of the their greatest strengths is crafting characters that are simple yet convivial. The character of Ms. Crawly, Buster's iguana assistant, is actually rather pointless and trite (sorry, director/writer Garth Jennings, who voiced Ms. Crawly). Most of her jokes are moribund, one-note, and go nowhere. However, Mike the mouse, voiced by Seth McFarlane, is the funniest of the contestants. He's so self-centered that he begins living the high-life before he even has the money to support it. Rosita, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, is such a lovable, gentle sweetheart of a character, but is more vivacious than the typical excessively loving, doting or overworked mother archetype.

Jennings is also shrewd enough to seamlessly, surreptitiously use some characters to make realistic points about artistry and performance. Rosita can sing, but has very little stage presence and is paired up with Gunther, voiced by Nick Kroll. Johnny, voiced by Taron Egerton, can sing, but he is also told to play piano for the show. These are indications that, yes, sometimes more is expected of you than your accustomed talent, which is a rather atypical message in a children's film. However, Ash, voiced by Scarlett Johannson, wants to perform original music and she crafts an original song that she is allowed to perform, which also sends the message that sometimes your mere abilities are enough. That dichotomy is existent in the entertainment business, but it is so rarely seen or have been expressed in movies and it's one that is very important to bring to the forefront and be made aware of.

Jennings has not only given us nicely presented characters, but paired them with voice actors that bolster their likability. Witherspoon, Johannson, Egerton, and Kroll do immense justice to their characters. Tori Kelly clearly has more comfort as a forceful, boisterous singer than acting as shy and modest, but for the role, she plays it convincingly. Matthew McConaughey has the naive optimism, the gentle charisma, and the blissful spirit that enlivens Buster Moon. I suppose it's fitting that McConaughey's most intriguing, bustling, and productive period involves two animated movies in 2016; a field previously unventured by him that he knocks out of the park both times.

One aspect that is absolute with Illumination Entertainment is their animation. While Secret Life of Pets cloaked itself in gorgeous, autumnal hues evocative of New York, Sing's climate in a city unique unto itself and it's simple, yet even more fetching. The animation is magnificent, displaying poppy, luminous, vibrant colors. A sequence involving the flooding of the theater is as enthralling, enrapturing, thrilling, and intricate as a marvelous action sequence. As expected for a film called Sing, the film features a wide array of musical numbers. What's rather surprising is how all-encompassing the music is. It doesn't tread the avant-garde waters, but it also utilizes more musical selections than the simple Top 40 playlist often present in kids' films. The music is used straightforwardly and humorously, as showcased specifically in the climactic competition that is all parts bizarre, riotous, lively, and warranting a shimmy in your seat.

Initially, I wasn't sure that this movie was going to resonate securely. I knew it would succeed financially, but I figured it would be just...cute. During its start, I thought that it would have been more interesting if the script had more of a bite or a satirical slant. However, this film is not just cute. It's entertaining, moreso than expected. It's not a grand slam, but in these progressive, boundary-pushing times of animation, sometimes just a simple, effective bit of entertainment is all you need. Sing, the last animated film released in 2016, is guaranteed to leave a smile.

RATING: An enthusiastic three stars out of four

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