Koala bear Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a failed impresario – a dreamer who fell in love with the theatre as a 6 year old then ended up owning the very same theatre, thanks to the hard work of his father. Now several years down the line his lack of business acumen has resulted in empty seats and a theatre on its knees. And while Buster sits in his office talking himself up to us, the unpaid crews from his previous shows bang on the door demanding payment.
Buster’s best friend is Eddie (John C. Reilly), a sheep whose father has bankrolled many a Moon production but is now digging his hooves in about spending any more money. So with the bank on the phone constantly, and utility bills going unpaid, Buster comes up with a plan to bring the glory days back to the Moon Theatre – a singing competition with a scraped-together prize of $1000. Sadly the flyers, printed off by his iguana assistant Miss Crawly, have a typo (oh Buster, you should have got me to do your proofreading!) and he’s actually offering a prize of $100,000. But he doesn’t know it as a gust of wind blows them out of the window.
Soon talented singers and small time dreamers trapped in dull or constraining lives around the city are picking up the flyers, and on the day of the auditions the queue outside the theatre stretches down the street. To his credit Buster sees everyone – there are no production assistants chucking out anyone who doesn’t have a heartstring-tugging back story or look like a middle aged Ali G in a gold tracksuit and matching beanie. And his finalists can sing.
Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a ground-down mum with 25 sweet but noisy piglets, and a husband who genuinely doesn’t notice when she’s not there as long as his dinner is cooked and the children are looked after. Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a young gorilla from a cockney crime family, who is stuck working as a getaway driver for his father (Peter Serafinowicz – also currently inhabiting the dark side in John Wick: Chapter 2, proof that we Brits always provide the best villains) when all he wants to do is sing. Meena (Tori Kelly) is a painfully shy elephant who keeps running away from any chance of success and refuses to perform, despite Buster’s encouragement.
Mike ( Seth MacFarlane) is a tiny mouse with a huge sense of self-esteem who belts out standards while constantly pushing his luck against underworld figures. And teenager Ash (Scarlett Johansson) is a rockstar-in-the-making porcupine, playing guitar in a duo with her boyfriend who writes all the songs. All attracted by the chance of singing success and in some cases by the huge payout for the winner.
Buster is a rather bumptious Simon Cowell without the nasty streak, happy to split groups to take only the talented one, put together new duos where one complements the other, or shoehorn singers into roles that “fit” the narrative he wants to present. But though he is overbearing and sometimes boorish, he is basically kindhearted.
At the auditions Rosita is described as “a great set of pipes but boring to watch”. She’s paired with Gunter who can dance, loves sparkle and has an incredible motivational streak. This unlikely partnership blossoms into a genuine friendship and is the main driver for Rosita’s transformation as a singer and dancer.
Buster, good natured but sometimes blinkered, tries to force Ash into the typical girl singer image of sparkly dress with bubblegum popsong as “you’re female and you’re a teenager”. She actually cries while singing Call Me Maybe (which annoyed me a bit as it is a truly brilliant pop song), so unlike her usual style is it, leading Buster to say my favourite line in the whole film: “I don’t think anyone’s going to call after that!”. Johnny is ordered to learn to play the piano to accompany his own singing; Mike is a law unto himself.
Of course as the rehearsals get underway and the day of the big show approaches the finalists all have their battles to fight away from the theatre. Rosita’s childcare arrangements are collapsing. Johnny is estranged from his criminal father. Ash’s boyfriend is unfaithful with another porcupine, Becky (hereby known as Becky With The Good Quills). Mike is trying the patience of some of the scariest underworld thugs in town. And Meena STILL won’t agree to actually take part at all despite Buster’s continual encouragement. Plus the theatre itself is constantly under the threat of foreclosure.
Buster needs a show stopping stage set to ensure the show is a success – this really is his last chance and he knows it. But his hubris results in the theatre literally in ruins. Can Buster and his singers bring it back to life in time – and just as importantly can they bring in an audience?
Child-friendly humour is never far away in Sing. Buster’s assistant, Miss Crawly, has a glass eye that pops out at inopportune moments. I found this rather repetitive but I’ve just checked with my children who thought it was hilarious. And there’s a lovely scene where, after the collapse of the theatre, Buster starts car-washing as a business, using his father’s bucket. As he’s furry he simply uses himself as a sponge, and in a true sign of friendship Eddie the sheep offers to be his woolly chamois for drying and buffing.
Sing is a fun film for kids. But it doesn’t reach the heights of, say, Trolls, another simple tale but one that sparkles just a bit more, and it does drag a bit in parts. Partly because there actually isn’t enough singing in it (which is a shame as Taron Egerton and Tori Kelly in particular perform brilliantly).
Or enough fart jokes. In fact my 7 year old is hoping the director’s cut will include extra fart jokes. There’s only one fart joke, involving lots of farts very quickly, as if they wanted to get past the obligatory fart joke as fast as possible – like a Shakespearian actor trying to work out how to say To Be Or Not To Be in Hamlet before moving swiftly on.
Of course every children’s film has to have a simple motto and Sing’s is “don’t let fear stop you doing the thing you love”. Which is true unless what you love is perhaps climbing escarpments without safety equipment, or riding your bike at night with no lights. Also some people – and some Koalas – should probably let lack of talent and business acumen stop them doing the thing they love. Then again, I am mid-40s and jaded. When you’re 5, and you have someone (me!) to stop you whizzing off on your scooter without a helmet, it’s not a bad motto to live by.