Seth MacFarlane, Tori Kelly, Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey, Taron Egerton, Scarlett Johansson and Nick Kroll are some of the voice actors of 'Sing.'
With Sing’s mix of heart and humor, the first collaboration between writer/director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri marks the sixth fully animated feature from the studio.
The film stars Academy Award® winners Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, alongside Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Grammy Award-nominee Tori Kelly.
Set in a world like ours but entirely inhabited by animals, Sing stars Buster Moon (McConaughey), a dapper koala who presides over a once-grand theater that has fallen on hard times. Buster is an eternal—some might even say delusional—optimist who loves his theater above all and will do anything to preserve it. Now faced with the crumbling of his life’s ambition, he has one final chance to restore his fading jewel to its former glory by producing the world’s greatest singing competition.
Five lead contestants emerge: Mike (MacFarlane), a mouse who croons as smoothly as he cons; Meena (Kelly), a timid teenage elephant with an enormous case of stage fright; Rosita (Witherspoon), an overtaxed mother run ragged tending a litter of 25 piglets; Johnny (Egerton), a young gangster gorilla looking to break free of his family’s felonies; and Ash (Johansson), a punk-rock porcupine struggling to shed her arrogant boyfriend and go solo.
Each arrives under Buster’s marquee believing that this is their shot to change the course of their life. And as Buster coaches each of his contestants closer and closer to the grand finale, he starts to learn that maybe the theater isn’t the only thing that is in need of saving.
Featuring more than 65 hit songs, Sing is produced by Meledandri and his longtime collaborator Janet Healy. Together, they have produced all of Illumination’s films since the studio’s inception.
While Chris Meledandri has primarily worked with filmmakers who began their careers in short-form animation, Sing marks the first time he has partnered with a filmmaker from live action for an Illumination feature. Meledandri, who was certain that Garth Jennings’ unique path would bring distinctive charm to the collaboration, states that their connection began long before Sing’s writer/director even knew it: “I fell in love with Garth’s independent film, Son of Rambow. I felt that he was such an authentic storyteller, and I loved that it was based on his own childhood as an amateur filmmaker.” As well, Jennings’ extensive experience directing music videos informed a curious perspective and grasp of the power of music in telling visual stories. “I had a hunch that Garth’s sensibility would be a perfect fit for this idea that’s preoccupied me.”
During one of Meledandri’s trips to England, he asked to meet with Jennings and shared with the filmmaker this seed of an idea he had. Meledandri showed him a picture of a group of four koalas and told him to imagine they were holding little microphones. He asked Jennings for his thoughts on telling a story about a singing competition…one set in a world populated entirely by animals. “I knew that Garth and I share a deep love of music and that he is a gifted storyteller,” reflects Meledandri. “We both felt that this concept would provide us the opportunity to tap into the global appeal of music-based storytelling.”
The writer/director agrees that this journey began with a kindred spirit: “About five years ago, I met Chris when he was passing through London. We talked about the kinds of movies we liked to make, and Chris’ idea would allow us to combine just about everything we both loved in one story. We were only half way through a pot of tea, but I was already very stupidly excited because this was one of those ideas that you could instantly see the potential for in every direction.”
Jennings worked with Meledandri as they crafted Sing, in which the characters give everything for a life-changing opportunity. Indeed, the performers struggle with everyday problems that we all experience at some point: feeling overlooked by family, worrying about bills, overcoming barriers that prevent happiness and growing comfortable in our own skin. The intersection and narrative would be built around a theater-owning koala named Buster Moon, who first became entranced by the theater as a young joey. It was back then when, alongside his doting father, he experienced a magical evening that bent his life’s arc for good.
It is this most unlikely of heroes who proves pivotal to the rest of the characters in the story. “At the very beginning of the movie, you meet Buster Moon as a six-year-old koala,” Jennings discusses. “He is taken to the theater for the first time by his father, and it completely blows his mind. This experience has a transformative effect, and he grows up desperate to be part of the theater world. We then meet present-day Buster, and he owns the theater that he fell in love with.”
As Jennings and Meledandri developed and shaped the character of Buster Moon, each inevitably found himself inspired by this showman who—through sheer force of will—was attempting to accomplish the nearly impossible. Armed solely with a singular passion to imagine and execute an event that would truly connect with audiences, young and old, Buster is the ultimate creator.
For Meledandri, filmmaking has always been about this act of creation: how we start with nothing but an idea and—through a combination of willpower, chutzpah, blind faith, a little delusion and a lot of salesmanship—we persuade others to join our journey. “In the end,” reflects Meledandri, “if we’re lucky and gutsy and faithful enough, something magical happens: We bring dreams to life. Like Buster, we have the privilege of transporting people out of their daily lives into something better—sometimes for two hours, sometimes for much longer.”
For Jennings, Meledandri and Healy, what also makes Sing stand out is the filmmakers’ unapologetic obsession with music. From current pop to longtime favorites, the film is replete with sounds—including more than 65 hit songs, ranging from covers of classic Frank Sinatra and the soulful R&B of Drake to the infectious pop of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. “To tell stories with music and have such a broad spectrum to draw from was a huge reason why we got excited about Sing in the first place,” notes Jennings. “It is important that the audience care about every character’s story, and sewing their stories together with music allows us to do it in a way that would be impossible otherwise.”
In fact, music is seamlessly woven through almost every frame of Sing. “Because it’s about a singing contest, you get these incredible sequences where we have a montage of different characters auditioning and practicing in rehearsals,” explains Healy. “The movie is full of music, and we have so many interludes and songs that carry us from one scene to another.”
For Jennings, the chance to see a project from its beginning stages of development into its release in theaters is a powerful one indeed. While he admits that writing is the most intriguing part of the process, he is humbled by the privilege of being able both to script and direct an animated film.
In addition, Jennings voices one of the supporting, and scene-stealing, players. When his character, Miss Crawly, Buster’s longtime assistant, makes a typographical mistake that promises $100,000 to the lucky winner—not the $1,000 requested by Mr. Moon—she sets in motion the events of Sing. He laughs, “I play Miss Crawly, an elderly female lizard. Yes, I am a natural at playing elderly female lizards.”
Meledandri embraces that this original property about joyful redemption is one that holds all-audience appeal, of paramount importance to any undertaking by Illumination. “Sing is relatable, funny, empathetic, uplifting, but most of all, even though it stars animals: human,” he gives. “We wanted to make a movie that offered the audience multiple points of entry, and many possible elements to relate to. I predict that people are going to fall in love with these characters and care about their stories as they all seek to win a singing competition thrown by one very optimistic koala.”
When casting Sing, it was critical to find an all-star group of performers who could sing their songs as brilliantly as they vocalized their lines. Says Jennings, “everyone has found their own little way of making their character their own. With our cast, they aren’t only present in the voices but also present in the animation.”
For the role of Buster Moon, Jennings found one name immediately came to mind: Matthew McConaughey. “Matthew realized quite quickly that in order for his character to work, his optimism had to be infectious,” Jennings states. “He had a way of making Buster incredibly endearing and incredibly relatable.”
McConaughey’s fellow Oscar winner, Reese Witherspoon, proved to be the production’s ideal Rosita, a selfless mother of 25 piglets. Once a very promising singer, Rosita longs to recapture the feeling of being celebrated for her talents and to challenge herself in front of a live audience. Witherspoon first shocked the world with her singing talents in Walk the Line, in which she portrayed legendary artist June Carter. Praises Meledandri: “Not only is Reese a brilliant actress and humanitarian, she has an inner fortitude that simply gives flight to Rosita. You root for Rosita at every step of the way because of the steely determination and maternal compassion that Reese gives this surprisingly complex character. She’s simply riveting in the role.”
A notable crooner in his own right, the multitalented Seth MacFarlane voices the Sinatra-inspired Mike, a wheeler and dealer who is on the run from goons to whom he owes money. Despite the fact that Mike is a mouse, his over-the-top personality makes him appear so much bigger. For the role, MacFarlane—a master of voice work who has created some of the most popular animated characters in modern television—gives Mike a Rat-Pack vibe. “Talk about riches,” lauds Healy. “Seth is so incredibly talented. He croons these wonderful melodies in a way that just melts your heart.”
While audiences know Scarlett Johansson as an international superstar, not as many fans realize that she’s an accomplished singer/songwriter—who has released two albums and collaborated with Pete Yorn. As the voice of Ash, a disaffected porcupine who has been recently dumped by her no-good boyfriend, Lance, Tony Award-winner Johansson had to tap into her inner angst-ridden teen to deliver Ash’s powerhouse vocals.
While Buster initially sees Ash as a “Call Me Maybe” girl, Ash is determined to perform the type of music Lance tried to control when they were together. “Whenever Ash comes on the screen, I just melt,” sums Healy. “Scarlett’s voice coming out of that adorable character is just wonderful. She’s riveting.”
The filmmakers were stunned when they first heard Taron Egerton’s singing voice. “Every one of our performers corresponds to their role in a way that amplifies the character,” says Meledandri. “You feel Taron’s eagerness to turn Johnny’s struggle into something quite deeply embodied, and he alternates between ‘Stay with Me,’ ‘All of You’ and ‘I’m Still Standing’ with equal measure. When we first heard Taron deliver the initial notes of one of Johnny’s songs, we knew audiences will be enchanted by his abilities.”
A 2015 Grammy Award nominee for Best New Artist, Tori Kelly was cast as Meena, the shiest member of Buster’s troupe. Although Meena tries to audition for the talent show, her crippling stage fright relegates her to a role as stagehand. When she sees her second chance at taking the main stage, she swears to herself that she won’t blow it. Kelly, whose 2015 debut album, “Unbreakable Smile,” showcased a vocalist who is one of the finest of her generation, welcomed the opportunity to join her first production.
The filmmakers knew that Kelly could tap into the same fears all singers have when they begin their careers. True to form, the young performer unleashes a Meena on the world that blasts through the ceiling. “Although Tori has never acted before, I think she’s been singing since she was born,” says Jennings. “It’s scary and ridiculous how good this lady can sing. In the audition, we completely fell in love with the character that she could give to this elephant, and it was delightful recording with her.”
Buster’s best friend, Eddie, is voiced by John C. Reilly. Jennings discusses that Eddie just so happens to be the son of wealthy parents: “Eddie has been helping Buster with his shortage of a cash flow, but his parents have put an end to it. Eddie is Buster’s support system and steers him away from his more ridiculous ideas. When push comes to shove, he is there for him in his darkest hour.” When it came time for Reilly’s vocal work, his director remained impressed. “I’ve used every single ad lib and quirky addition that John gave me, and that was quite a lot. He’s a generous actor and somebody who loves to create a vibrant recording scenario.”
Whether a particular song gets us through a tough time or lifts us up in celebration, there is much power in music. To have a film that is packed with anthems delivers a potent experience, and all involved in Sing agree music is as much an emotional art as the animation itself. “The combination of the music with visuals is always so much more powerful and emotional,” Meledandri says. “With each tiny detail, the animation team have maximized the emotion in every character. Similarly, the music group has done the same with each song. We all took a look at the story and the characters, and determined the purpose each song has at every specific point. If we have done our job correctly, the music will wholly enhance the emotions in each scene.”
No one is more aware than Jennings of the enormous balancing act that is the music of Sing. “We had to take so much music and make it feel completely smooth and slick,” he says. “[The team] never stopped working out how to make this better. There are songs that people know and love, as well as songs they’ve never heard or wouldn’t have thought of liking before. It’s like listening to a friend’s playlist. They can open your ears to things you may not have thought were your cup of tea…but you suddenly find you love.”
Meledandri reflects on the journey that Jennings and the rest of the Sing team have taken: “You never know where inspiration will strike, and for Sing, it occurred that fateful day over tea. This was the strongest single group of artists we have assembled for one movie. It took Garth’s extraordinary writing and directing—and the discipline and love of every member of the global Illumination team—to bring this story to life for the holidays. The film is so full of relatable characters and delivers such pure joy, and I feel audiences will see themselves in the journey of our fallible, funny characters. Know that any tears shed—and there might be some—will be the happy kind.”
Sing opens in theaters December 21st.
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