Although not without its charms, Trolls is by far DreamWorks Animation’s worst film in at least half a decade.
Trolls is bad. I’m gonna be upfront about this because, goddammit, I can’t help but be disappointed by that fact. Not that anybody has bothered to give the studio due credit for this, but DreamWorks Animation have been on a quiet little hot streak this decade, making a string of admittedly-minor but still very entertaining and heartfelt animated films from Madagascar 3 onwards (or from Megamind onwards if you didn’t find Puss In Boots to be really below-par) that managed to successfully re-orient and re-brand a studio tainted by the Shrek image for much of the 2000s. Sure, they’ve been in a financially precarious position since 2013 and I wouldn’t call any of the films they’ve put out post-Kung Fu Panda 2 “classics” or anything, but they’ve made consistently entertaining films that don’t regress to old bad habits and don’t shamelessly ape the competition in search of cash.
That’s why Trolls being outright bad hurts me more than Kung Fu Panda 3 just being kinda ok. As much of a step back as I felt Kung Fu Panda 3 was, that still felt like its own thing, a conscious desire to redress the action-comedy-drama balance that KFP2 skewed more towards drama, in ways that I can appreciate worked as intended but weren’t what I personally wanted out of a sequel to one of the best animated films of the decade. By contrast, Trolls feels completely soulless and by-the-numbers in ways that DreamWorks had mostly avoided in recent years, trying so very hard to jump on the same loud, fast, zany, candy-coloured animation train that Illumination and much of Blue Sky’s work have ridden to recent box office success. There’s a full-on regression in tone, style, storytelling, and filmmaking choices here that’s rather maddening to witness, like when your Dad deliberately grows a soul-patch in his mid-40s – you know for a fact that they’re better than this and it’s bewildering to watch them do this to themselves.
The plot, such as it is, is relentlessly generic and by-the-numbers in the worst way. The Trolls are relentlessly happy and positive little cherubs who live their lives in pure bliss with endless parties, mass singing, and regularly scheduled hugs. But their idyllic existence is shattered once they are discovered by the Bergen, a miserable race of creatures who are incapable of being happy but discover that they can be momentarily happy if they eat a Troll. So, every year, the Bergen hold a “Trollstice” holiday where the people of Bergen Town gather to eat Trolls, until King Peppy (a wasted Jeffrey Tambor) leads the Trolls to safety. 20 years later, his daughter, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), throws a giant and loud party to celebrate the anniversary of their escape which attracts the Bergen’s vengeful Chef (Christine Baranski) to their hiding spot and lets her steal a whole bunch of Trolls. Fearful for her friends, Poppy sets off to Bergen Town, joined by the cynical and deservedly-paranoid Branch (Justin Timberlake), in order to rescue them all before Bergen King Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has never eaten a Troll before, can gorge himself on them.
That’s somehow not even the half of it – the film also throwing in masses of backstory for all of its cast, insisting on characterising all of Poppy’s myriad of friends so that we’ll care when they’re in danger or when one of them inevitably turns out to be evil, and the film eventually ends up pivoting on the Trolls Cinderella-ing a lowly scullery maid (Zooey Deschanel) into realising her crush on King Gristle Jr. – and this kind of rampant over-plotting is the kind of thing that amateur animation studios like Rainmaker Entertainment are supposed to fall victim to, not stalwart veterans like DreamWorks Animation. Over-plotting and over-writing in a desperate bid to hide the fact that there’s precious little actual story going on throughout the film’s 90 minutes. That kind of regressive bush-league cocking-up abounds throughout Trolls as directors Mike Mitchell (of Sky High) and Walt Dohrn (of Shrek Forever After) indulge in all of DreamWorks’, and Western Feature Animation in general’s, worst impulses.
Like the worst animated features, Trolls can’t stop undercutting any of its potential moments of pathos with a joke to keep the mood light and silly, rather than trusting the drama and the audience to sufficiently carry proceedings through. Branch’s tragic backstory should be a powerful moment, one where the film pivots from pure comedy based on contrasting absolute ideas of optimism and cynicism into something more nuanced and mature, but the film can’t stop winking at the audience that this sadness won’t stick whilst it’s going on, so the scene is completely deflated by self-aware gags about the fact that Branch is played by Justin Timberlake. And this kind of intentional undercutting means that the film’s few moments of pathos that aren’t intentionally sabotaged – including a major one near the climax that was done better in both Inside Out and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – completely fail to resonate because the film simply hasn’t committed to the groundwork required to earn them.
Meanwhile, the worst instincts that DreamWorks had seemingly outgrown by this point return in full effect here. Stunt casting is rampant, with side-Trolls distractingly voiced by people like Gwen Stefani, Icona Pop, and James Corden despite their characters adding nothing to the film and their stilted too-distinct-by-half voice-overs only serving to further tear down the illusion that these are supposed to be characters worth caring about. Pop culture references burst their heads through every now and again despite the world of the Trolls being a fantasy world completely distinct from our own, which somehow makes this the second animated movie this year to feature the word/phrase “YOLO” spoken by a character. Most irritatingly of all, however, the relationship between Branch and Poppy eventually shifts from that of a mutual respect burgeoning friendship deal into something more romantic for seemingly no reason – seemingly, we’ll come back to this in a little while – and, just like in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and How To Train Your Dragon, absolutely nothing would have been lost if the pair remained friends. Goddammit, Nick and Judy in Zootopia should not be the lone exception to this, people!
The whole film is just so soulless and by-the-numbers that it makes the few things that it does right all the more frustrating. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake put in great vocal performances that just make me wish the film better served both characters and surrounded them with a better supporting voice cast. The design of the worlds of the Trolls is often inspired, deliberately contrasting fuzzy rainbow-vomiting sweetness with drab literal-vomit squalor to great effect, in a way that just makes me wish the actual Trolls themselves weren’t so inadvertently terrifying to look at – it’s the head shape and facial structure, it’s always the head shape and facial structure. The film’s few actually funny moments come when it plays off the opposing worldviews of Poppy and Branch to extreme effect, with most of its biggest guffaws coming from Poppy’s travelling number, and that just makes me wish the film would get out the way of itself more often rather than forcing the lamer gags (like a side-character going “Oh my God” in a silly voice) or undercutting the drama at every turn.
Trolls is also DreamWorks’ first full-on musical since Joseph: King of Dreams back in 2000, the logical end point of the studio’s infatuation with utilising pop songs to soundtrack most every one of their films’ Big Moments, and they handle things mostly ok. There are a few original compositions – the monster breakaway pop hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” being one, and Poppy’s travelling montage “Get Back Up Again” being another – but mostly we’re dealing with a jukebox musical that gets through upbeat disco standards like a pre-Diabetic Me got through Mint Imperials.
They’re all sung well, as you’d expect when you’ve got people like Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake and Zooey Deschanel behind the mics, but the arrangements are more hit-and-miss. At their best, they work as complimentary gags to certain beats of the film – there’s a deliberately whimsical cover of “The Sound of Silence” that just about makes up for that song’s total overuse today, whilst the introduction of Bergen Town brings out a monotone rendition of Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood” of all things and is probably the biggest laugh in the film – but at their worst they mash-up super-obvious cuts together into a medley (“I’m Coming Out” mixed with “Mo’ Money, Mo Problems” is so basic a mash-up that I’m offended that this was handled by professional musicians) and throw some cringeworthy gratuitous rapping on top that’s as embarrassing as all of Lil Romeo’s discography. It’s all boarded competently (if unspectacularly) and it does a far better job at committing to being a musical than, say, Frozen did, but the conceit, much like the rest of Trolls, only works sporadically.
But what seals Trolls’ fate as DreamWorks’ worst film in an age is its overall message about happiness. Without wishing to spoil how the film ends up, Trolls believes that the only thing stopping people from experiencing happiness is themselves. If they’re being miserable, or hateful, or bitter, it’s entirely their fault for not actively tapping into it. If you want to be happy, just be happy! It’s that simple! Oh, and maybe also have a strong support network of friends who are also always happy all the time forever who can lift you out of your misery whenever you need it! That shouldn’t be too hard, cos making friends is super dooper easy! Oh, and get a partner! A partner that you can fall in love with, preferably of the opposite gender! That always sorts things out!
Now, in its most mild of defences, there’s a mild anti-capitalism/anti-consumerism streak in the film’s ultimate message – you don’t need to “eat” things in order to be happy, read: you don’t need to buy stuff to be happy, which is pretty rich for a soulless film whose sole reason for existing is to scream “BUY OUR TOYS!!” in your face for 90 minutes but whatever – and the film is so simplistic that I honestly don’t think it even realises that that prior paragraph is what it’s really saying. However, if you’ll allow me the opportunity to retort for one second: THAT IS BULLSHIT. Harmful, condescending, stigmatising, reductive, privileged BULLSHIT. The notion that people just need to want to be happy in order to be happy is BULLSHIT, as is the insistence that having a partner of some kind magically cures all ailments, as is the idea that all it takes to get a support system of beloved friends is to just want some. BULLSHIT, the lot of it, and it consequently stigmatises those with Depression or legitimate reasons for being sad as weird freakos who are choosing to wallow in their misery because they don’t want happiness hard enough.
“But Trolls is just a kids’ animated feature for younglings. Asking for nuance or maturity is just being overly harsh and judgemental. It’s just for kids!” That defence is bullshit, too – to a lesser degree than Trolls’ ruminations on what happiness is, but bullshit nonetheless. For one: we live in a post-Inside Out world, so that argument can be immediately discredited. More importantly, for two: this shit is harmful. I struggled (and still do to a degree) with self-loathing for many years over my inability to be happy on a consistent basis. I wanted to be happy, like Trolls preaches, but was physically unable to be so and felt like something was wrong with me, since I had no reason to be so miserable. I resisted getting real help for years thanks to this line of thinking, re-enforced by society and most media every day, that my problem was my just not trying hard enough and wanting to be miserable. To watch Trolls preach that exact same harmful BULLSHIT, especially in a post-Inside Out world, is infuriating and, more relevantly to your interests, perfectly represents the soulless, passion-free, unoriginal and desperately safe product that’s been shunted into cinemas.
Trolls is a bad, bad movie. There are glimpses of a good time scattered throughout, but they’re buried under amateur storytelling mistakes, soulless filmmaking, active regression towards the studio’s worst impulses, and harmful messaging. It’s one of the worst films that DreamWorks Animation have put out yet, and for it to come from the same studio that’s been on a quiet hot-streak as of late is incredibly disheartening. 2016 has been a banner year for animated features, and most of them are far more worthy of your time than Trolls is.