Saturday 18 February 2017

Pet sounds: "Sing"

Although it bears a "written and directed by" credit for the humanoid known as Garth Jennings - consolidating that prominent element of design visible in his Hitchhiker's Guide and Son of Rambow enterprises - Sing is one of those digimations that appears not just to have been animated by computers, but originated by one. Certainly some monumentally large numbers have been crunched behind the scenes here: it's cutesy-funny animals (profitable mainstay of modern family flicks, from Madagascar to Zootropolis) performing in a vocal talent contest (mainstay of global TV schedules, from The X Factor to Glee, and the moneyspinning Pitch Perfect franchise besides), thus funny-cutesy animals performing the kind of pop music that's been circulating on syndicated radio for months, if not years. Suffice to say, the element of risk is roughly naught; since its release in the middle of January - generally a time when younger viewers are ill-served, with cinemas besieged by awards bait - the film has sat comfortably atop the UK box office.

It has at least two points in its favour. First, it's attempting something other than the usual, hidebound quest narrative, instead using the ramshackle theatre and rehearsal space operated by koala impresario Buster Moon (voiced by the newly ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey) as a base for a rapidfire succession of daft backstage skits and stories. Second, accompanying adults may be struck by the sheer variety of songs Sing sings. There's no Einstürzende Neubauten, granted, and it's almost a given that put-upon pig Rosita (Reece Witherspoon) should feel inclined to burst out at one point with Katy Perry's "Firework", inspirational anthem de nos jours. It's less expected, however, that she should later be seen sashaying to the Gypsy Kings; and if you ever had a yen to see and hear arachnids harmonising along with "The Ketchup Song" or a mollusc covering Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind", Sing could well be the timekiller for you.

It may well be the case that the animators were only the second busiest individuals on this production, behind those administrators obliged to work overtime clearing the relevant copyrights. Jennings, lest we forget, made his name in the field of pop video (where he gave us, among other highlights, the very sweet promo for Blur's "Coffee and TV"), and his ardent soundtracking here extends in every direction: a brief snatch of ominous Morricone panpipes introducing the llama sent by the bank to repossess the New Moon Theatre, the deafening operatic blast attached to the imposing philanthropist Buster has to court to stave off foreclosure, a cocktail-lounge cover of Daft Punk's "Around the World" heard over a midfilm makeover montage. For those of us who grew irritated by the lazy, kid-triggering overuse of "I Like to Move It" in the Madagascar movies, the effect is a not unappealing zappiness - something like what it was to flick through the MTV channels, back in the days when MTV actually stood for Music Television.

What Jennings does with all these tunes narratively is pretty conservative: Sing proves as merciless as any Cowell project in honing in on its competitors as warbling case studies. These songs provide ways out of crime, or means of shoring up fragile self-confidence; they allow thrashy porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) to recover from a bad break-up, and finally make Rosita's husband - a literal chauvinist pig - to sit up and notice the loving, creative woman to whom he pledged his troth, or trough. Where Zootropolis assembled its super furry animals with an eye to thinking about society in general, Sing's emphasis on escapist razzle-dazzle chimes with our la-la moment, when a career in the performing arts offers the comforting illusion of social mobility; it actually trumps La La Land in acknowledging how the world of showbusiness abuts those of exploitation (witness Buster, at his lowest, converting himself into an ursine squeegee at a topless carwash) and criminality (for it is a police helicopter that will shine a spotlight on the final, big show).

Like Jennings - sorely in need of a hit, or at the very least a public appearance, a decade on from the small but cherishable success of Rambow - Buster is putting this show on principally to print money, not make great art; it wouldn't be too hard to imagine an animated musical that composed itself principally out of abstract, Busby Berkeley-like geometric shapes - for anybody exposed to the work of Norman McLaren, it might seem like the easiest thing in the world - but Sing, bound for long runs in the multiplexes, plainly isn't that. Jennings has, though, the very good sense to devote an entire setpiece to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off", and to insist that Johnny, the piano-playing gorilla voiced by Taron Egerton, ditch the sappy John Legend track we hear him rehearsing early on to perform a rousing cover of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" when the show finally does go on. It's still a movie in which computer-generated animals work their way through the fifty top tracks on Spotify, but you take your consolations where you can these days.

Sing is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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