Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, the latest from the Despicable Me studio charts the well-worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who has inherited his love of theatre, and the very theatre itself, from his father. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.
So, he tells his woolly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash and personal possessions to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly (voiced by Brit director Garth Jennings, last heard of with 2007’s terrific Son of Rambow) sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.
The auditions, which include a snail singing Ride like The Wind, a troupe of persistent Japanese kittens and three tail-shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the beleaguered mother of 25 piglets, and if she can ever overcome her shyness, Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.
It plays out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and home life stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana – co-voiced by Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Saunders as the younger and older versions - into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.
It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits (as well as the original Set It All Free), plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. As the young Nana, Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight. It never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years. 108 mins.