“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.”
Illumination has captivated audiences all over the world with the beloved hits Despicable Me, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Despicable Me 2 and Minions, now the second-highest-grossing animated movie in history. Following the release of this summer’s comedy blockbuster The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination brings Sing to the big screen.
With its highly relatable characters, 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.
Set in a world like ours but entirely inhabited by animals, Sing stars Buster Moon (Matthew 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 (Seth MacFarlane), a mouse who croons as smoothly as he cons; Meena (Tori Kelly), a timid teenage elephant with an enormous case of stage fright; Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), an overtaxed mother run ragged tending a litter of 25 piglets; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a young gangster gorilla looking to break free of his family’s felonies; and Ash (Scarlett 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.
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.”
While Jennings and Meledandri began to flesh out this universe, they felt that it was crucial that the world the characters inhabit be based on our real one. It was vital for the audience’s engagement to see the animal characters as keenly relatable, characters with hopes and fears that echo our own. In this town, the theater is at the heart of everyone’s conflict, joy and repair. If Buster loses his home—he actually sleeps in the desk of theater’s office—everyone loses their chance to transform into more than they ever imagined.
Producer Janet Healy reflects that Buster’s situation at The Moon Theater is becoming direr as the days tick by. “Buster is a producer who has fallen on hard times,” she says. “He’s a showman who loves his theater and putting on productions; but, as of late, none of them have been doing very well. The pressure is on him to pay his crew, the bank and the electricity, so he’s got quite a dilemma to deal with.”
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.”
Each main character performs songs that embody their aspirations and journey—from Rosita’s interpretation of Perry’s “Firework” and Gunter’s version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to Johnny’s covers of John Legend’s “All of Me” and Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” while Mike belts out Sinatra’s “My Way.” The five contestants and Buster—as well as many supporting players—have musical themes of their own. The cast spent countless hours rehearsing and performing their numbers, and each had a specific strategy to get into character. For example, MacFarlane was able to perfect Mike’s signature sound with the help of one of Old Blue Eyes’ actual vocal coaches.
With multiple narratives to weave together, and many stories that the music on Sing had to serve, it was mandatory that the primary driver be Buster Moon himself. “At its core, the music has to be joyous and playful, serving Buster’s infectious, optimistic spirit—even though he’s got everything stacked against him,” explains Jennings. “It needs to make your shoulders move and feel delightful. We’ve also allowed the orchestra and score to go out and follow our heroes home…and see how their lives are being changed and twisted by being a part of Buster’s show.”
The original new songs Illumination has commissioned—such as Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” from Despicable Me 2—have found an audience outside of the movies themselves. Continuing that trend, the original song “Faith,” performed by STEVIE WONDER, featuring ARIANA GRANDE, is as powerful as it is infectious. Produced by multiple Grammy Award-winning producers RYAN TEDDER and BENNY BLANCO, the end title song is synonymous with never giving up. Tedder discusses its import: “There’s an uplift and inclusion to this song that bridges generations. With Ariana’s range and Stevie’s vocals, ‘Faith’ is the perfect song to give the audience as they take the messages of Sing with them.”
It was key to Jennings, the music team and the producers that audiences embrace new sounds and styles as part of the experience of the film. The goal was to have younger audience members exposed to songs they’ve never heard before, as well as adults celebrating sounds from their past and being introduced to today’s pop hits. As the soundtrack is cross-generational and resonates with a global audience, songs throughout the decades that are showcased in Sing will be gaining new fans.
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, Garth and 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.”
Production wrapped, Meledandri takes a moment to reflect on the extraordinary film that Jennings and company have created: “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.”