KIDS' STUFF: Sing (2016)

Sing (USA, 2016)
Directed by Garth Jennings
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johansson 

Describing a film as ‘disposable’ is not necessarily a bad thing. To some extent all culture is disposable; human beings are very selective about what they remember and choose to preserve, and sometimes things which are fleeting, temporary or one-offs are more powerful and resonate more strongly than things which are constant or unchanging. Not every film has to have staying power as a work of art to succeed at what it sets out to do; however good it may be to sit down to a lavish, slow-cooked, ten-course meal, there are times when a greasy burger can satisfy just as much.
From this perspective, you’d think that Sing would earn at least a pass. It’s not setting out to be a great work of art to rival 2001 or The Godfather; instead it comes at you with the words ‘mainstream’ and ‘crowd-pleaser’ plastered all over its face, asking you to lighten up, switch off and enjoy it. But while its production values may meet our low expectations, it ultimately brings far too little to the table to make it remotely memorable. It’s not an awful film by any means, but even by the standards of Illumination’s other work of late, it is one of the most forgettable mainstream films of the last few years.
What makes this more than a little depressing is the talent behind the camera. As one half of producer-director team Hammer and Tongs, Garth Jennings attempted (and sadly failed) to make a decent fist of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, producing a film which was quirky and odd but lacked the appeal of Douglas Adams’ original work. He then redeemed himself in style with Son of Rambow, one of the most entertaining coming-of-age films that Britain has produced. To see Jennings helming this, as well as writing it, suggests he has gone the way of many British talents in Hollywood; whatever edge or quirky qualities he had have been sandblasted off by way of higher budgets and more executives, and now his name is attached to something which can be most charitably described as solidly mediocre.
In light of its high-profile celebrity cast, it’s tempting to write off Sing as another example of the ‘guest list’ sub-genre that frequently underwhelms and yet refuses to die – putting it in the same category as Rat Race, New Year’s Eve and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. But Zootopia demonstrated in the same year that it’s more than possible to have a star-studded cast (playing anthropomorphic characters) without just wallowing in its star power. The problem is not the cast, who are hardly without talent; the problem is the weakness of Sing’s script. Zootopia used some familiar archetypes to tell an interesting story about power, corruption and how appearances can be deceptive; Sing is simply trying to cash in on what is popular, hoping its constant pop culture references and broad sight gags will see it home.
An illuminating (ha ha) comparison would be with The Greatest Showman, Michael Gracey’s entertaining but hugely rose-tinted musical about the life of P. T. Barnum. Both films trade heavily on being fun, light-hearted entertainment for the masses, and their success suggests what the industry has lost since the ‘triple threats’ of Hollywood’s golden age (people who could act, sing and dance) were killed off by the new wave and the rise of method acting. But for all its faults, The Greatest Showman did at least have something to say once the music stopped playing; while its treatment of Barnum was hardly satisfactory, it is an effective story about the dangers of ambition and how everyone can be talented. Sing fails because it has nothing to say; once the pyrotechnics have all gone off and the cheers have subsided, it’s a pretty empty experience.
There are very few elements to Sing which either haven’t been seen before or which haven’t been handled much better elsewhere. Putting on a big show to save the theatre was a cliché long before The Blues Brothers did it, but for all its faults John Landis’ film remains far more inventive and distinctive than this. The characters competing in the show reads like a checklist of the ‘let’s put on a show’ film: the talented but shy one, the artist who’s afraid of selling out, the man who’s afraid of shaming his parents (Billy Elliott, anyone?), and the impresario who lies through his teeth while trying to make people happy (Barnum again). Sing is not a terrible film – it’s too competently mounted to be terrible. Instead it goes for the lowest possible expectations, meets them instantly, and then hangs around expecting something better to happen. 
Sing is very consciously trying to cash in on the likes of Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor and other such shows. Its characters’ backstories play out in the same wide-eyed, overly optimistic and frankly manipulative way as those of the shows’ contestants when they advance to the later stages. The musical choices mean the film is instantly dated: while it is passingly funny now to have a pig singing and dancing to Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’, it’s not the sort of joke that is destined to age well. And while the ending is generally happier for all concerned than the outcome of those reality shows, it still rings hollow – the whole story follows its narrative beats so predictably and unremarkably that the ending is neither uplifting nor surprising. 
In my review of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I contrasted the PIXAR approach to filmmaking with that of Dreamworks, arguing that the former tried to appeal to children and adults on the same level while the latter’s films were effectively going to two different audiences in two different ways. With a couple of exceptions (Minions and the first Ice Age, for example), Illumination’s films are what would result if someone made a PIXAR film without any ambition or genuine imagination. They appeal to the broadest possible audience not by way of being challenging or memorable, but by being inoffensive and innocuous.
There are some technical aspects to Sing which one can admire in amongst the generic wallpaper paste of its plot. While its song choices may be rather obvious, the singing is well-produced and some of the physical set-pieces which accompany them are nicely edited. The best of these sees Taron Egerton’s character blasting out Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ on the piano while his father busts out of jail and runs across the rooftops to be reunited with him. Even if it’s only viewed as a vignette, in isolation to everything else, it’s a decent little section which keeps us interested.
Equally, the voice cast acquit themselves reasonably well considering the material. Reese Witherspoon and Taron Egerton are the highlights, making the best of very well-worn characterisations. Seth McFarlane’s performance is a reminder that he’s at his best when someone else is directing him, and Matthew McConaughey does just enough to avoid slipping back into old habits. There are no obvious weak links – it’s just a shame that such a stellar line-up wasn’t given more to work with. 
Sing is mediocrity incarnate, never being good or distinctive enough to rise to the merely decent but never allowing itself to be so shockingly bad as to warrant a perverse recommendation. Like the later Ice Age films it will serve as passable, watchable fare for its target audience, who will most likely remember next to none of it a couple of hours later. One hopes that Jennings will rediscover his spark as a director in the future, but confronted by the evidence of this, that hope may be a forlorn one.

NEXT REVIEW: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)