The sheer entertainment value of a good singing contest has long made the format a staple of prime-time TV schedules, so it’s not altogether surprising that someone at some point was going to make an animated feature along those very same lines.
What’s unexpected, however, is that particular someone should be British writer/director Garth Jennings, whose dotty and touching coming-of-age saga Son of Rambow – about a Stallone-fixated youngster and the Plymouth Brethren mum oblivious to what he’s getting up to – remains an absolute treasure of cinematic English eccentricity.
Nine years later, he’s teamed with Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio behind Minions and The Secret Life of Pets, to bring us this zingy, family-friendly musical peopled entirely by anthropomorphic animals, where the future of a grand, gilded old theatre rests on the success of an amateur talent show with a big-money prize.
Mike, a tiny mouse with a massive ego, thinks his Sinatra-esque pipes (voiced and sung by Seth MacFarlane) make him odds-on for the cash. His self-confidence contrasts with his rival competitors who’ve also survived the extensive and richly amusing auditions.
Porky mum Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), for instance, has 25 piglets at home but still dreams of chanteuse stardom, as does shy, ample-voiced elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) if she can overcome her stage fright. Punky porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) meanwhile, faces scorn from her muso boyfriend for selling out to such a mainstream show, while teenage gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) still has to drive the getaway car for his dad’s criminal gang. What none of them know, though, is that fast-talking koala impresario Buster (Matthew McConaughey, laying on the slick charm), doesn’t exactly have the cash to pay the winner…
Questions of self-esteem, parental pressure and troubled relationships mean these assorted creatures face very human problems, and although the movie certainly gets plenty of mileage from comic incongruity – a car wash scene involving Buster the koala, Speedos and many soapsuds is bonkers to the point of hilarity – the genuine pathos in its assorted storylines brings genuine heart to these showbizzy frolics.
True, there’s not quite the depth of the best Pixar offerings, and some will find a hint of stereotyping in casting the cockney gorillas and Russian bears as the ne’er-do-wells of this particular animal society. What it does have though, is Jennings’s highly individual wit, which runs through the oddball character design – that’s him voicing the elderly one-eyed iguana who’s Buster’s indefatigable secretary – and myriad madcap throwaway gags (just dig those J-Pop puppies and their irrepressible dance routine!).
Best of all is the sheer joy it takes in musical performance of all varieties, as the characters belt out songs by Katy Perry, Leonard Cohen and Stevie Wonder, there’s even a flourish of Puccini, and particularly emotive use of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers in Jennifer Hudson’s knockout performance. Its upbeat mood and ample laughter lend this appeal across the generations, but when it sings, it really soars.