Like many musicals from time immemorial, “Sing” slouches along when characters speak and shoots heavenward when they burst into a tune.
It’s an animated “follow-your-dreams” fable we’ve watched a thousand times, with dialogue as mundane as this: “Don’t let fear stop you from doing the thing you love.” Or “You know the good thing about having hit rock bottom? There’s only one way to go, and that’s up.” But when characters raise the rafters, they raise our spirits.
Those two nuggets of pseudo-wisdom come from Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala who wants to put on million-dollar musical shows but scarcely has bus fare. He scrapes together $1,000 (well, most of it) to mount a talent show for amateur singers, but his lizard secretary accidentally prints fliers promising the winner $100,000. Buster goes ahead anyhow, hoping for a miracle.
He narrows the contestants, none of whom we get to know in depth, to a soulful gorilla (Taron Egerton) whose dad wants him to join a band of thieves; a pig (Reese Witherspoon) who needs to escape from her dozen-plus kids; a smug rodent (Seth MacFarlane) who thinks he’s some kind of Frank Sinatrat ; a sweet porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) who wants to leave her dismissive boyfriend; and an elephant (Tori Kelly) whose family tries to convince her she has an amazing set of pipes.
The movie comes off as “Zootopia” without social commentary or nearly as much imagination. The ominous Godfather in that film turns out to be a shrew, a wonderful sight gag; here the mobsters are Russian, so they have to be bears. (As in “Zootopia,” all kinds of animals coexist in the city and lead human-style lives.) The only surprise in “Sing” is that the selfish crooner begins and ends as a rat, metaphorically speaking; everyone else finds glory or ends up fulfilled.
Garth Jennings, best known for the oddly appealing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Son of Rambow,” might seem an unusual choice for such conventional material. But the British writer-director shares directing credit with Christophe Lourdelet, who worked on the art for “Minions” and “Despicable Me 2,” and Jennings’ warmth complements Lourdelet’s visual zaniness. (Jennings also voices Miss Crawly, Buster’s secretary.)
The score includes jaunty covers of “My Way” (MacFarlane), “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” (Kelly), Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (Kelly again) and “Shake It Off” (Witherspoon). The two original numbers belong in that elevated company: Johansson belts Dave Bassett’s “Set It All Free,” and Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande perform Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco’s “Faith” over the end credits. The latter is an obvious bid for an Oscar nomination but worthy of that honor.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly.
Directors: Garth Jennings, Christophe Lourdelet.
Length: 108 minutes.
Rating: PG (some rude humor and mild peril).