Set in a large and colourful city reminiscent of LA, San Francisco, Miami and New York, yet clearly in a world exclusively populated with all kinds of humanised animals, the plot follows Buster Moon, a koala bear voiced by Matthew McConaughey ('Dallas Buyers Club', 'Dazed and Confused') as he tries to save his theatre from foreclosure. This promising premise is unfortunately soon weakened by a formulaic introduction of the main characters as we catch each in a slice of life without much of a coherent through line connecting them. The film also begins with a much younger Moon as he watches Nana Noodleman (Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson), Suffolk Sheep Extraordinaire, dazzle her audience with a Musical Theatre version of ‘Golden Slumbers’ by The Beatles.
With the help of his hardworking car washing father’s savings, Moon grows up to own that same theatre. But with several shows bombing and never a memorable success, the bowtied marsupial now faces too many unpaid bills and a brown bank lama named Judith (Rhea Perlman: 'Cheers', 'Matilda', 'The Mindy Project') who demands payment, or else...
Pressed to find an urgent solution, instead of looking for a new show or closing down the theatre, Moon decides to produce his very own talent contest. Soon, his loyal assistant, Miss Crawly, a glass eyed iguana brilliantly voiced by the musical’s writer and co-director himself, prints advertising posters, accidentally letting them fly off the window. This attracts a crowd of X-Factor / American Idol proportions, from which Moon and Miss Crawly pick a handful: Johnny (Taron Egerton: 'Kingsman'), a young Eastend gorilla who dreams of being a singer while being groomed to work in his father’s gang; Rosità (Reese Witherspoon: 'Legally Blonde', 'Monsters vs Aliens'), mother of 25 piglets who no longer gets support or attention from her workaholic porcine husband (Nick Offerman: 'Lego', 'Parks and Recreation', 'Fargo'); Ash (Scarlett Johansson: Avengers, 'Her', 'Robot Chicken'), a teenage porcupine whose talent is overshadowed by her rock star boyfriend Lance (SNL comedian Beck Bennett); Mike (Seth McFarlane: 'Family Guy'), a bullying busking mouse with the ego the size of an elephant, who’s only there for the prize money.
Moon also hires a stage hand, Meena (Tory Kelly: Star Search, American Idol, The Voice), a young elephant with the ego of a mouse after she completely freezes during her audition.
On a moral level, the story presents some interesting points. Firstly, the protagonist, happy to build his business from the sweat of others at the start, eventually has to redeem himself through a spell of hard labour before he can get what he wants. He’s helped in this by his Suffolk sheep sidekick, who was born into money and completely lacks purpose until that point. Their redemption scene also allows for a few easy gags, though it oddly flirts with tragicomedy too. The film also includes two contestants (Mike and Johnny) who toy with crime and very nearly suffer the consequences (that being said, Mike the mouse seems to get away with a lot more than he should). On a lesser level, Rosità’s easy fix to rehearse and perform her house duties eventually backfires, yet she later has her big breakthrough as she is near exhaustion at the grocery store, leading to a fantastic dancing sequence to the Gypsy Kings.
All other contestants (except for Mike) have to face their inner demon before they can glow and win the day. And though the prize money is (nearly) everyone’s biggest reason to join the contest, their artistic vocation becomes their only reason by the time the final show ends. Even Johnny’s father Marcus (awesomely voiced by Peter Serafinowicz: 'Parks and Recreation', 'Shaun of the Dead', 'Spitting Image'...though I still remember him from his guest performance in Dylan Moran’s 'Black Books') seems to come to terms with his son’s career and his own in the end. And Nana, the biggest earner of them all, appears to have a genuine passion for entertainment.
The creation of a stage powered by squids was visually striking in addition to being a nice little wink to current energy issues. The squids themselves were a delight when it comes animation design, and a joy to watch throughout the closing credits. Last but not least, the final show combined amazing vocal performances by the cast (each voice actor also sang everything), amazing animation throughout... And a wonderful original song, “Set It All Free,” written for the film by producer-composer Dave Bassett (performed by Scarlett Johansson as Ash).
A few covers also worth a mention: Taylor Swift’s "Shake It Off" performed by Reese Witherspoon and Nick Kroll (whose character Gunter also does a hilarious rendition of Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance"), Stevie Wonder’s "Faith" ft Ariana Grande, Elton John’s "I’m Still Standing" performed by Taron Egerton, and last but not least, a heart breaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" by Tori Kelly (aka Meena) among the theatre’s ruins before the grand finale.
Outside the theatre, a couple of car chases could definitely stand next to some of their big budget live action equivalents. Kudos to directors Christopher Lourdelet, Garth Jennings, and producer / Illumination founder Chris Meledandri and their cast for this level of visual and musical quality.
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