So, since the comparison is inevitable, let’s get this out of the way right now: Yes, Sing — from Illumination, the upstart animation studio that also gave us the Despicable Me movies and The Secret Life of Pets, among others — bears a lot of similarities to Disney’s Zootopia. (Heh: “bears.”) Both are set in worlds in which many species of anthropomorphized animals live together in relative harmony in a postindustrial civilization that looks remarkably like what humans have created, yet there is no evidence of humans anywhere. But that’s about the extent of it. The two movies are very different in tone and humor and drama and intent. They’re not really much more similar than any two movies in which all the characters are homo sapiens. Seeing one does not mean you need to exclude seeing the other.
And you shouldn’t miss this one: I absolutely loved Sing. (Perhaps not quite as much as Zootopia, but that’s a very high bar; it’s my best animated movie of 2016). Sing is a total delight: smart, sweet, gently funny. In fact, this could well be a movie produced in the city of Zootopia, a light comedy to entertain its inhabitants — their Pitch Perfect, perhaps. It’s the tale of theatrical impresario Buster Moon, a koala, who, in a last-ditch attempt to save his grand but failing theater, decides to put on a voice-talent show, open to anyone. (Sing’s music might even get human kids interested in classic pop standards à la Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra. There’s tons of modern pop here, too.) To be honest, it’s never really clear precisely how this show will save the venue; even if it sold out it wouldn’t bring in that much money. But that’s Buster: he’s a bear of big ideas and bigger optimism, and never mind the details.
One of the chief, and most unexpected, pleasures of Sing is Matthew McConaughey (Kubo and the Two Strings, Free State of Jones), who is wonderfully exuberant as the voice of Buster. Moreso than any other cartoon voice performance that springs to mind — with, ironically, the exception of Jason Bateman as Nick the fox in Zootopia — his creates an alchemy with the animation that brings the character to spectacularly vivid and utterly charming life. (John C. Reilly [Guardians of the Galaxy, When Marnie Was There] as the voice of Eddie, Buster’s sheep best friend, is a close second.) I don’t mean to imply that there’s a single voice performance here that isn’t terrific, but there’s an extra spark of magic in McConaughey’s (and Reilly’s, and Bateman’s in that other movie). It had never occurred to me before, but if there’s a new leap that animated movies can take, we could be seeing it onscreen this year: there are fresh heights of delight that the voice performances can reach.
As is probably inevitable in a story populated by animals of all sizes, shapes, and colors, the notion that people (as these animals most definitely are) are perfectly capable of getting along just fine with other people who look different — sometimes very different — is inherent in the tale. But that goes unspoken here, unlike in Zootopia, and instead there’s a strong running motif of people needing to feel useful, accepted for their talents, and not taken for granted. Often this takes a particularly gendered tinge, as with punk porcupine Ash (the voice of Scarlett Johansson: Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book), whose boyfriend dismisses her musical creativity and refuses to let her have the spotlight, and with pig mom Rosita (the voice of Reese Witherspoon: Hot Pursuit, Wild), whose husband ignores her and whose passel of piglet kiddies are a real handful. (One of Rosita’s challenges: she needs to find child care so that she can attend talent-show rehearsals! For a genuine battle for working mothers to get even such a comic nod in a children’s movie is truly radical.) But there’s also Eddie the sheep, who, as a trust-fund kid, needs a purpose in life; Meena the elephant (the voice of Tori Kelly), whose shyness keeps her from showing off her soaring singing voice; and Johnny (the voice of Taron Egerton: Eddie the Eagle, Legend), whose father doesn’t want any son of his to be a performer.
If fact, rather than Zootopia, Sing might bear a stronger resemblance, at least thematically, to writer and codirector Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow, his 2007 comedy about a couple of preteen boys who fill their summer making a First Blood-inspired home movie. (The other codirector is Christophe Lourdelet, an animator making his directorial debut.) For if Sing is about anything other than animals dressed up in people clothes and walking on their hind legs for our amusement, it is this: talent can be found everywhere, and often needs only a confidence boost and the right opportunity to express itself. That’s a nice, important message for kids. And for grownups, too.