[Originally published on Reviews by Steve, December 27, 2016]
For a look at another Illumination Entertainment film, click here for my review of The Secret Life of Pets.
I’m a big fan of Illumination Entertainment (the Despicable Me franchise, as well as The Secret Life of Pets – see my review here), and in this, their seventh outing, they maintain the anthropomorphic stylings from the latter film, while giving us a completely new story set in a world where animals run the show a la Zootopia. And really, running the show is what this movie is all about.
As usual, I will be constraining myself to direct commentary about only the first 15-20 minutes of the film, and avoiding all spoilers thereafter. If that’s too much for you, please read after you’ve seen the movie.
The story follows Buster Moon [Matthew McConaughey], a koala whose dream from the age of six was to be in showbiz. He realizes this dream when his father buys him a theater, but unfortunately, Buster isn’t really cut out for the business side of things, and when we enter the story, he’s on the verge of losing everything. He decides that a city-wide talent competition might be just the thing Moon Theater needs to get out of the red, and he cobbles together everything he owns to provide a prize. Due to a typo and a misunderstanding about the amount of the prize, the call for talent is an enormous success, and Buster soon has his roster for the big night.
The singers include a cripplingly shy elephant named Meena [Tori Kelly], an ape named Johnny [Taron Egerton] whose father runs a gang right out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, an angsty post-punk porcupine named Ash [Scarlett Johannsen], a put-upon mother of fifteen pig named Rosita [Reese Witherspoon] who gets partnered with a flamboyant pig named Gunter [Nick Kroll], and Mike – a smart-ass mouse voiced by Seth McFarlane. Kelly is a professional singer, but each of the primaries also does their own singing, and while I was aware of McFarlane’s singing chops, I was pleasantly surprised by the rest.
The plot moves from the main theatre-on-the-rocks line with Buster, his ancient chameleon assistant Miss “Has Anyone Seen My Glass Eye” Crawly [Garth Jennings], and his best friend, dissolute rich-goat Eddie [John C. Reilly in a scene-stealer], to individual sub-plots for each of the main contestants which run the gamut from super-supportive families, to the aforementioned gang activities, to Mike’s confidence games. Nearly every plot line threatens the show in some way or another, and Buster looks to be in well over his small furry head.
The movie, being an Illumination production, relies on a lot of sight gags and the occasional bathroom humor (there is one fart gag, and a lot of prop effects, as well as Miss Crawly’s constantly escaping glass eye). My six-year-old was laughing out loud at several of these, so I’d have to say that it plays well to the younger crowd. There is adult humor as well, masked in the juvenile, and I was able to enjoy the movie, while not quite loving it as much as the Despicable Me films. In the Illumination oeuvre, I’d place it right in the running with Secret Life and Minions – serviceable, funny, but not something I’m likely to want to watch again and again.
As with most children’s movies, there are a few lessons the directors are trying to impart. The main focus is on father-son relationships, with Buster often thinking of his deceased father, and Johnny working hard to both please his own dad and follow his dreams, with a lesser focus on shyness and bullying (Meena and Mike’s stories). The least satisfying of these was the way the movie dealt with bullying, as Mike only learns to stop acting like one after he becomes a victim himself, and even then, his character arc and motivations are never very clear outside of an intense personal greed that seems to drive him forward. Meena’s transition throughout the film seems even less likely, if a whole bunch more likable. I don’t know how much children will learn from this film, but sometimes it’s okay just to watch something in order to have a bit of fun and enjoy some good music.
Steve’s Rating: (7 / 10)
The singing is excellent, and some of the sub-plots are interesting (I especially enjoyed Johnny’s), but a lack of clear motivations for some character changes and a too-pat story work against this becoming a classic go-to animated film. Easy holiday season viewing.
Director: Christophe Lourdelet, Garth Jennings
Writer: Garth Jennings (written by)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johannsen, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Runtime: 1h, 48min
MPAA Rating: PG