Review: Trolls World Tour

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Walt Dohrn

Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Elizabeth Tippet, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky

Composers: Theodore Shapiro

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Anderson Paak, Sam Rockwell, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige

Genre: Jukebox musical, Comedy, Adventure, Animation

An antagonist’s rant in Trolls World Tour ironically serves as an apt description of the film’s predecessor.  It’s bland.  It’s repetitive.  Its lyrics are empty.  Worst of all, it crawled into my head like an earworm.  And you know what?  I loved dang near every second of it.

I know perfectly well that as a single man in his late twenties with no children, I was far from the target audience for a paint-by-numbers feature-length commercial for little girls’ merchandise with over-exposed musical celebrities doing covers for the licensed needle-drop numbers.  Moreover, I was clearly not in mind to win over any interest in the inevitable sequel.  And yet here we are.

This kind of cognitive dissonance is not supposed to be good for anyone’s health, but I’ll manage while we’re all under quarantine.  It’s not like we have anything better to do right now.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Barb and her Hard Rock Trolls terrorize other territories; destroying lands and kidnapping the leaders in order to pursue domination of Trolls and turn them all into Rock lovers. Five non-Rock lands need to be rebuilt and restored. In the country music land, the leaders imprison the Pop Trolls. A group of musical bounty hunters is sent out to round up Poppy and Branch. Barb uses a magical guitar to blast out chords that change Trolls into “Rock Trolls.” A character on the verge of drowning glimpses his “heaven” but quickly comes back to life. It’s played for laughs and happens quickly.

Language/Crude Humor: Mild insults and rude phrases like “you suck,” “we’re screwed,” “dang,” and “balls” (but after a beat, it’s clear that the reference is to food balls).

Sexual Content: Flirting/romantic tension between Poppy and Branch, who make declarations of love at the end of the movie. Glitter-covered trolls have bare, sparkly bottoms, and one of them “gives birth” to a tiny troll (who comes out of his hair).

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: Poppy is a strong leader. She’s brave, loyal, positive, and a good friend. She aspires to be a good queen. Branch is intelligent, resourceful, and well-prepared. He wants to save the Pop Trolls from imminent danger. Queen Essence, King Quincy, and their son, Prince D., teach Poppy and other Trolls why their differences matter. Despite her misguided beliefs about what’s best for all Trolls, Barb eventually sees the error of her ways. The various Trolls are diverse and come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.

The main message is to learn how to listen to others instead of always trying to speak/push your own agenda. The story promotes teamwork, communication, empathy, friendship, and loyalty. There’s also a strong message to value others’ differences, to listen to voices other than your own, and to recognize how different opinions, backgrounds, and beliefs make all of us stronger.

Kids will learn lessons about the importance of empathy, communication, and teamwork, as well as the value of diversity and tolerance/acceptance of different backgrounds, culture, and interests.

Review

It is abundantly clear that in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the film industry is going to have to become something different to still be viable.  With many folks sadly locked away in their abodes with small children in tow, the demand for some means of distraction from the silent enemy among us is quite high.  DreamWorks, which has made its legacy on a number of disposable diversions, has eagerly stepped up to the plate with another selection of their standard fare.

In many ways, the online release of Trolls World Tour and what this indicates for the future of not just DreamWorks but arguably the whole of filmmaking as we know it, could be said to be several times more of an intriguing topic than anything in the film itself.  Thankfully, someone else on this site has already written on what the coronavirus pandemic means for the movie business, and I have an unhealthy tendency to overthink stories meant for small children, so let’s get this over with.  I’m sure you’ve just about cleaned out your Netflix queue by now anyway, haven’t you, dear reader?

When the first Trolls movie released in 2016, it made no apology for what it was – another healthy helping of what I’ve affectionately called “Shrek Soup”.  All the proper ingredients were used heartily with no concern for moderation, proportion, or conservation.  Talking non-human characters?  Check.  Famous people selling out to do the voices?  Check.  Incongruent selections of licensed music interrupting the flow of what little plot there happens to be?  Check.  Add onto that a smattering of inappropriate jokes that only the adults will catch (hopefully) and a relentless seasoning of merchandising opportunities, and you’ve got what is clearly not meant for anyone over the age of taxpayer to enjoy unironically.

Why then, with all that said, did Trolls manage to work so well?  Moreover, why did it work so well for me?  I honestly wish I could say beyond the obvious sort of reactionary remarks.  I like the characters.  I like the pacing.  I like the emotional payoff.  The jokes landed for the most part.  Even the music checks out!  I don’t have any other explanation with regard to my personal affectation for this processed corporate swill other than “it just works”.  How it works is simply beyond me, but it does. 

Of course, that’s beside the point as far as the release of Trolls World Tour is concerned.  The reason we got a sequel at all is certainly not because the big wigs at DreamWorks had an epiphany about the film’s sophisticated underlying meaning.  Trolls was too successful and sold too much merchandise to not get a sequel, and clearly the opportunity for new profits was too great to let the most economically devastating pandemic in modern history to stop its release, so here we are.

I went into Trolls World Tour with an uneasy sense of déjà vu, and not because it was a sequel. It took a little cross-examination, but I eventually came to realize that I’ve seen this movie already about two years ago.  The film opens with the villainess, Queen Barb of the Hard Rock Trolls (Rachel Bloom), crashing into a non-threatening target on a ship with the intent of gathering six multi-colored macguffins, uniting them into a special device designed to channel their power and refashion the world into her version of a better place.  For the record, do not think she says at any time that she is “inevitable”.

Yes, Trolls World Tour is at its heart a shameless remix of Avengers: Infinity War, and I’ve actually mixed up the titles in my brain while writing this, coming up with the winsome typo of Trolls World War by mistake more than once.  You’ll probably do that too, sooner or later.  Can’t say it doesn’t work.  I’ve held as a principle for some time that if you’re going to copy, then copy the best after your kind.  If what’s being aimed at here is an easily digestible crowd-pleaser, there are worse recipes to follow.  As far as maintaining the canon of established lore from the previous installment, Trolls World Tour takes several liberties with what’s been put in place. 

Now in the position of queen, the effervescent Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is content spending her days doing much of the same things she’s always done.  It is unfortunate, but it seems that the screenplay couldn’t avoid resetting all the characters back to zero in order to send them on a new adventure.  Such is the inherent risk of sequels, but this fact does nothing to mitigate the frustrations of seeing Justin Timberlake’s Branch back in the role of a curmudgeonly killjoy despite Poppy supposedly breaking through that crust the last time around, for example.

As for what could rightly count as development, what’s on offer here is a suitable expansion of a sort.  Some have criticized the backdrop of Trolls World Tour for being a “retcon” of what came before.  I can’t find any good reason to see it that way, as what’s introduced here builds upon and expands what little we were given in 2016 without contradicting it.  The result may be a bit contrived, but in no way incongruent.

The expansion in question opens up the plot to there being six different main tribal or political factions of trolls, each oriented around a particular genre of music.  I’m not enough of a music aficionado to know if there’s an official manner of generic classification in that discipline, but the major parties listed here are Funk, Classical, Country, Techno, Hard Rock, and Pop (the last of which our main protagonists are members and rulers).  There are other lesser factions, but we’ll get to those later.

While it’s upsetting that Poppy and Branch have had their relationship undone to make way for recycled growth, it is at least appreciable that we get to see their conflicting visions of the world given a more mature treatment.  It’s incredibly typical for the optimist to get the lion’s share of validation in family flicks like this.  It’s equally refreshing to see Trolls World Tour demonstrate the practical strengths of Branch’s less saccharine perspective as well as the faults in Poppy’s diplomatic idealism in treating foreign threats.

The dynamism between Barb and Poppy is a familiar trope, but an effective one.  Barb is essentially another example of the “bad guy version of the good guy”, but she’s been given more depth and multidimensionality than most other examples of that trend.  Both Poppy and Barb are committed to the idea of removing anything that divides Trolls from one another, including any strong differences that can manifest into tribal division.  They also have blindly optimistic ambitions about uniting the various troll nations under a hazy ideal of sameness.  At least, it’s hazy in Poppy’s case.  Barb’s vision is much clearer in that she aims to conquer the whole of Troll-dom under Hard Rock.  Rachel Bloom’s stellar vocal performance also gives her a winning edge that makes me wonder if it would be asking too much to have Queen Barb be the leading character in the next installment, should there be one.

In fact, for all the shortcomings that can be listed, there are some rather smart choices being made here and there.  The casting is arguably the best feature.  Kendrick and Timberlake return with all their charm and charisma intact and deliver right where it counts.  Kelly Clarkson, who made her own name in animated musical releases last year with the slightly underrated UglyDolls, makes an impressive turn as Queen Delta Dawn of the Country Trolls.  Casting George Clinton and Mary J. Blige as the King and Queen of Funk was a stroke of genius.  Even Ozzy Osborne continues his late career trend of self-parody as Barb’s wheelchair-bound father, the former King Thrash.

The art direction was pushed to a greater extent in making everything in the scenery appear as if it was made up of scrapbooking material.  Felt, Velcro, embroidery, and glitter is used in lieu of water, fire, and foliage of various sorts.  It gives the entire experience a very inviting textile feel – like a living diorama project.  The fluency of the animation is even deliberately made to seem choppier in places to imitate the appearance of stop-motion.  It isn’t used consistently though, so the moments where it appears seem out of place.

It is far too obvious that the screenwriters (all five of them) wish for us to draw parallels between the various musical genres around which the trolls orient themselves and various racial and ethnic groups in the real world.  It was clear in the first film that the trolls are quite musical, as singing and dancing are an activity they seem to engage in instinctively.  It’s only now that we see how deeply music factors into what they consider to be their very being and identity.  The message of respecting each other’s differences is a familiar and much needed one right now, though I wish how the payoff of this message plays out in the film’s climax could have been less hackneyed and contrived.  It’s the one major stroke that kept the film from being REALLY good as opposed to just good.

Within the context of the story, I can accept the idea of the troll groups being unable to live in a world without their particular brand of music.  As someone who has selections of every musical genre featured here and a number of unmentioned others on his iPhone (Lo-Fi, Aggrotech, and Japanese Ska, anyone?), I found myself reveling in every musical bit a lot more than I probably should have.  The screenplay builds up to a devastating denouement that left me genuinely wondering how things were going to be resolved.  It’s too bad that said resolution is one that could have been guessed at by anyone paying even a modicum of attention.

I found here that the subplots are more intriguing than the main plot.  One involves Queen Barb commissioning a band of bounty hunters to capture Queen Poppy in exchange for maintaining their music on an overseas micronation separate from the Hard Rock empire.  Said bounty hunters are also members of four musical subgenres distinct from the main six – Smooth Jazz, Reggaeton, K-Pop, and…Yodeling (I’ve always understood yodeling to be more of an artform than a musical genre.  Shows what I know).  That raises a number of odd questions for me.  What exactly are the sociopolitical relationships like between these various troll groups?

I’d imagine the K-Pop Gang (played by actual all-girl K-Pop group Red Velvet, the lead singer of which provides the voice of Poppy in the Korean dub) to be from some independent municipality within the domain of the Pop Trolls, or perhaps having a relationship to Pop similar to what Okinawa has to Japan or Sicily to Italy.  Are the Reggaeton Trolls involved in some complicated trade union with Techno, Funk, and Pop simultaneously?  Is Classical akin what remains of Rome?  Am I thinking about all this too hard?  Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.  One major moment in Poppy’s development arc involves her coming to terms with what was a fabricated history of the Troll kingdom.  In one expositional stroke, the ideas of “history is written by the winners” and “pop music is an overly indulged and cheap derivation of all the other genres” are thrown at us.  This doesn’t really go anywhere with the plot, but as a character moment, it was quite impactful.  Considering the earlier realization that Barb and Poppy are essentially mirror reflections of each other, it makes me wish even more for Barb to get her proper arch of epiphany in whatever will be the next iteration of this franchise.  Considering the obvious traces of influence from Avengers: Infinity War, I’m astonished to say that Trolls World Tour caused me to recognize how Iron Man and Thanos were mirror reflections of each other, each taking drastic and ill-advised measures to reshape the world into what they consider to be a better future for it.

Positives

+ Just as fun as the first + Great characters + Smart casting + Solid musical selections

Negatives

- Disconnected plot - Contrived resolution - All-too-familiar thematic strains - Recycled developments

The Bottom Line

It’s like a really good Happy Meal, if there is such a thing. I’m not even sure what to make of that.

 

7.6

Tyrone Barnes

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