[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]
Trolls (Walt Dohrn/Mike Mitchell, 2016)
The newest film from Dreamworks Animation, Trolls is based on the collection of plastic dolls created by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam in 1959. Originally called Good Luck Trolls, they’ve had quite the life since then, waxing and waning in popularity over the years. Now, courtesy of the studio that brought us the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda films, these little creatures with the neon pompadours get their very own musical adventure. Is this silly confection just what we needed in this cockeyed, crazy world or ours? Before I answer that, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to state that I went to college with one of the two screenwriters on this picture, Jonathan Aibel. And through him I’ve met one of the two directors, Mike Mitchell. Jon and his partner Glenn Berger wrote all three Kung Fu Panda movies (and many others, including The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and Mike made Sky High. I loved all of those, and love those guys, so no matter what I write in the next paragraph, know that it isn’t motivated by any personal malice. For, you see, I did not much care for their latest collaboration.
In some ways, however, Trolls is lovely. How can one hate a film that promotes the notion that true happiness comes not from any drug one may take or product one may consume, but from within? That’s a wonderful message to convey to young children – the obvious demographic, here – and it’s driven home, and hard, in almost every scene. And since right now, in November, Trolls stands alone as one of the few options out there for the little ones, why not take your kids to see it? It’s innocuous fun, filled with bright, flashy colors and snappy songs, and if it’s rated PG (for a variety of reasons, none of them excessively violent), rather than G, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s ultimately a harmless bit of popular entertainment. Unfortunately, what cinematic delights exist within are so lightweight, for older viewers, as to be hollow, evaporating like a wad of cotton candy shoved in your mouth over and over again.
The story is a typical quest journey, with Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) of the Troll Kingdom, a happy-go-lucky sort (as are all all the Trolls but one), forced to team up with sourpuss Branch (Justin Timberlake, Runner Runner) – that one unhappy Troll – on a rescue mission to the land of the Bergens, much larger creatures who eat Trolls as a shortcut to bliss (which they are unable to achieve on their own, or so they think). Along the way, our heroes learn moral lessons while cracking jokes and singing songs. Predictably, all gets worked out at the end. Happy day.
Unfortunately, it’s those songs that undo whatever good feeling I have towards the better parts of the story. Almost as if by studio imperative (so maybe not the fault of Mitchell, Aibel and Berger), the soundtrack is filled with new versions of previously recorded music, each one underscoring (in emotions writ large) the primary beats of the narrative. The worst for me is the use of Cyndi Lauper’s hit “True Colors,” performed by Timberlake at a crucial moment in the film when all of the Trolls have descended into a monochromatic depression. The lack of originality in that choice is made worse by its obviousness. Which is too bad, because the one notable new song written for the film, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” also sung by Timberlake, is extremely catchy (and its music video, directed by Mark Romanek, who made Never Let Me Go, is more naturally joyful than the movie it supports). The bottom line is this: if you need something to see with your small children, then Trolls should serve that purpose. If you’re expecting Kung Fu Panda-like quality, however, then go back and watch that series again, instead.