Sing has a premise that by no means should produce a good result: Take a bunch of cartoon animals, slap them into a singing contest where they can perform a bunch of pop hits and classic standards, and bam boom you have a ready-made family feature with almost no effort put into story or character that is pretty much guaranteed to print its studio money. For crying out loud, Sing was even produced by Illumination Studios, who have essentially written the book on milking ridiculous returns out of stupid ideas executed poorly (Minions, The Secret Life of Pets). But the remarkable thing about Sing is that it does invest in story and characters, and as a result it actually comes out as a fun and enjoyable experience. Who would have thought?

Now, before you think I’m going soft on Illumination, I think most of the credit for Sing’s success goes to writer-director Garth Jennings, who is best known for his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and has no previous relationship with the animation studio that did all of the film’s digital rendering. I say that because the film’s comic pacing feels much more in line with a studied comic director than it does Illumination’s usual poorly-timed slapstick, and the characters actually have a certain amount of depth to them that paints them as more than mere archetypes.

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A gorilla wants to sing rather than be a part of his father’s criminal gang. A pig wants to be defined by more than her role as a mother and wife. A porcupine struggles under the stifling influence of her bandmate/boyfriend. An elephant struggles with her seemingly insurmountable stage fright. A mouse struggles with his underappreciated talent by vastly overcompensating. And all of these characters are brought together by a contest put together by a koala making a last ditch effort to put on a show to keep his struggling theater viable.

It would be an exaggeration to say that these characters represent nuanced portraits of humanity (animality?), but the effort put into giving each of them an arc makes the film function as a piece of cinematic entertainment rather than as an extended animated concert. Giving each of them equal screentime to develop does make the film feel more than a little narratively crowded, but I honestly couldn’t tell you which of the characters I’d prefer to see cut in order to give the film more breathing room. These are characters you grow to care for because their struggles are imminently relatable, and what the film lacks in depth it more than makes up for in heart.

By the time the film finally gets to its inevitable concert finale, it has earned its performances by incorporating them into the conclusion of each character’s arc. As for the performances themselves, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, and Tori Kelly all give fabulous vocal performances, and the accompanying visuals to their songs are bouncy and fun, if not always particularly inspired. Sing is one of the biggest surprises of 2016, not because it is especially great, but because it is much better than a movie about singing, talking animals ever needs to be. Lower your skepticism, and you’re in for a fun family flick.