Buried in Sing is the year's most harrowing story of a married family life crushing the life out of the people involved. This children's comedy about singing animals includes a subplot about a pig-woman who only wants out of life to have a chance to sing mediocre pop songs and have any other living soul recognise that she has an inner life. But she is so ignored by her husband and 25 children that she's able to replace herself with a tape recorder set up in a Rube Goldbergian device to feed the family, and nobody notices for at least a couple of days, apparently. Meanwhile, she is treated as a prop by the singing partner she's been set up with by a distracted show manager, and continues to have no outlet for her own actual personality, but thank Christ, at least she's getting out of the house. This is, as far as I can discern, meant to be A) funny; B) comprehensible to children. I can't speak to B, but as far as A goes, it'd be like laughing at one of Vittorio De Sica's neorealist films about the brutalisation of women, if they had been made with fuck ugly cartoon pigs.

So yes, Sing. Illumination Entertainment's seventh feature - and second of 2016, following The Secret Life of Pets, the studio's fastest turnaround between projects yet - which is absolutely not their worst. Hop hasn't be retroactively wiped from existence, I'm sorry to say. But it's pretty altogether dreary, putting, count 'em, six massively trite subplots into a blender, half of them totally inappropriate for the audience of small children who make up the only audience that could imaginably find Sing to be in any way fresh or interesting, and mashes them into a uniform paste that can be spackled across 108 unreasonably long minutes. Those are, for the record, Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon) and her toxic home life; Johnny the cockney gorilla (Taron Egerton), who wants to get out of the life of crime being forced on him by his gang-leader dad (Peter Serafinowicz), in a perverse My First Guy Ritchie Flick situation; Mike the womansing asshole mouse (Seth MacFarlane), who gets in deep to some Russian bear mobsters while trying to make it with a lady mouse; Meena the shy elephant (Tori Kelly) who has a powerhouse of a voice but absolutely no confidence to use it; and Ash the teenage punk porcupine who is definitely a teenage teenager despite having the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson, which puts us into some amazingly horrible new animated version of the ol' "too old to play a high-schooler" bit that's been going on since the '50s; anyway, Ash is one-half of a band with her boyfriend Lance (Beck Bennett), who keeps insulting her down to make sure he can stay the lead singer even though she has more talent.

Binding these plots together, and providing, I guess, the A-plot, is the saga of Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala whose dream since childhood has been to be a great theater impresario. Sadly, the Moon Theater is on its last legs, and as a Hail Mary attempt to stave off the creditors and finally put on a show that people will want to see, he concocts the idea of a singing competition, with a cash prize. When his senile lizard secretary, Miss Crawly (Garth Jennings, the writer-director) accidentally prints fliers with the prize listed as $100,000 instead of $1000, the whole town goes crazy, forcing the quick-thinking marsupial into all sorts of crafty schemes to keep himself afloat. The above-mentioned five characters are, of course, the finalists, with the dance-averse Rosita getting paired with the loud German pig Gunter (Nick Kroll), and it should come as little surprise that most of these characters all end up learning a lot about themselves and growing as people heavily anthropomorphised animals. I am happy to report that the solitary exception is Mike, who remains a seedy little shit until the very last frame we see of him, which on top of being gifted with the only professional voice actor in the main cast and also one of only two leads who is reasonably accomplished as a singer is enough to make him the solitary enjoyable character in the movie, even if MacFarlane's Sinatra impression is frankly rather thin.

Sing is all the worst tendencies of contemporary major-studio 3-D animation with none of the merits. As the plot concept almost inherently requires, it is an excuse for a truly heroic number of pop songs to show up: 64, according to Cartoon Brew, two of them originals (that list includes some classical music as well). Most of them are only snippets, heard in an audition montage that plays as a game of "Name That Tune" for the damned, but a healthy number are given fairly extensive screentime, some in the original recording, others in versions choked out by the cast members as best they can. There's everything from an overblown version of the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" belted out by Jennifer Hudson to an only slightly autotuned Egerton tromping through "I'm Still Standing" to, oh my God you will never believe it, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" sung with too much coloratura by Kelly; presumably, this is the filmmakers' attempt to acknowledge that there is no possibility that Sing would exist without Shrek, and to at least vaguely own that fact. Anything written in the 21st Century and thus at least mostly likely to be familiar to the target audience is contained within the audition montage.

The soundtrack is a pandering grind, mostly ultra-famous hits presented in comfortingly familiar arrangements, but at least it fits in the world of the movie, which is very distinctly our world but with animals living in it. Pretty boring animals, too. I have limited affection for Zootopia, but at least it gave a great deal of thought to mapping personalities and behaviors onto species in a way that foregrounded the cast's bestial nature. It provides a stark contrast to Sing, where the animals are talking animals because talking animals sell. The koala runs a theater and the pig is a housewife. It's kind of a coy, fun visual that the punks are porcupines, and use their own quills as accessories. Only very infrequently is there an actual gag based on the fact that these are actually animals, like when Meena uses her trunk as a prehensile suction cup. Otherwise, it's just there: rabbits twerk, and sheep play video games, and pigs go grocery shopping, and terriers are awful Japanese stereotypes, and they would do these things in much the same way if they were people. I would like to say that the characters are bland, but that's only true from the perspective of the script; visually, they are actively unpleasant, falling into some heretofore-undiscovered dell within the Uncanny Valley, where they have uncomfortably evocative expressions beaming out of faces that have buffed-out, vague textures (Buster is a particularly unsettling example: his eyes and nose feel like smudges taped onto finely-detailed fur, and it's as disorienting as the non-Euclidean geometry of R'lyeh).

It's dispiritingly poor, not nearly splendid enough in its repulsiveness to get down to, say, Shark Tale level, but stuck at the level of toxic mediocrity. Mostly, it's just addicted to clichΓ©s, given just the smallest amount of zest by the limitless possibilities of animation, by which I mean that there's a physically improbable flood at one point, that immediately leads into the "at their lowest" phase of the six storylines that I think you have probably already correctly predicted. It's colorful, at least, traditionally the one saving grace of Illumination productions. But that's not nearly enough, and I would wish this on no parent, nor even their most undiscerning children.