There’s been no shortage of “American Idol” parodies over the years, from the uneven comedy “American Dreamz” a decade ago to the groundbreaking “Black Mirror” episode “15 Million Merits” on Netflix. Hard to believe the Fox TV show went off the air before an animated feature took aim at this material.
“A singing competition? Who wants to see another one of those?” asks a sheep (voiced by John C. Reilly) in “Sing.”
Yet this talking-animals movie (the fourth of the year) doesn’t merely rely on the “American Idol” blueprint for its story. The plucky and hummable flick finds its own voice, so to speak.
Matthew McConaughey headlines as Buster Moon, a koala whose show business agency is foundering. He needs to find a way to restore his Moon Theater to its former glory, so he puts out the word about a singing contest. But a misprint proclaims the prize to be $100,000, which is far beyond his meager means.
The opportunity attracts a batch of talented contestants, for both the cash and a chance to showcase their skills. These include a homemaker pig (Reese Witherspoon) with dozens of piglets in her care; a punk porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), newly parted from her domineering boyfriend/collaborator; a cockney gorilla (Taron Egerton) trying to escape the family business of robbing banks; a high-rolling mouse (Seth MacFarlane), who owes money to mobster bears; and an elephant too shy to perform (Tori Kelly, who ironically was booted off Season 9 of “Idol” before reaching the top 24).
This latest effort from Illumination Entertainment falls in line with its “Despicable Me” and “The Secret Life of Pets” franchises. These pictures never rise to Disney or Pixar heights, but they consistently offer respectable charms.
“Son of Rambow” filmmaker Garth Jennings (who co-directed with animation veteran Christophe Lourdelet) imparts a cinematic touch, using pans and time lapse shots to embellish action scenes such as a spectacular flood sequence.
His screenplay is less ambitious. “Sing” offers none of the social commentary that made “Zootopia” so interesting. In fact, the “animals” aspect of this tale is peripheral, often provoking as many questions as laughs. Like, why does the ape have an English accent but the koala doesn’t have an Australian one?
A venture such as “Sing” has to get the music right. It starts off a little rocky with the overplayed Spencer Davis Group chestnut “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” running beneath the credits. And there’s yet another cover of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
But the soundtrack improves, notably with its fine rendering of the not-overplayed Beatles track “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” by Jennifer Hudson. This leads to a crowd-pleasing climax as the beasts finally earn their chance to wow an audience.
For once, the finale of a singing competition really does carry its weight.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril