Director: Mike Mitchell
Cast: The voices of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Gwen Stefani, John Cleese, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Funches, Aino Jawo, Caroline Hjelt, Kunal Nayyar, Quvenzhané Wallis, Walt Dohrn
MPAA Rating: (for some mild rude humor)
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 11/4/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 3, 2016
There is an odd, awkward feeling when a movie aimed at kids tries really hard to be energetically cute and relevantly hip. Such a moment arrives early into Trolls, a feature-length animated musical based on the on-again-off-again fad of the dolls of the same name. They're the semi-cutesy ones with the dimpled, scrunched-up faces and—more notably and noticeably—the tall, neon-colored hair. The film gives them a back story, although it's mainly that they're happy, hug-prone, and disposed to breaking into song and dance whenever they're not too busy hugging. That last one might be vice versa, but really, does it even matter?
The awkward moment is the film's first song-and-dance number, in which the Trolls perform a medley of pop songs with Trolls bouncing off flowers and leaping high in the air, as well as lots of shots of the creatures walking toward and looking at the camera during the rap breakdown section. Yes, it feels as pandering as it sounds. By the time a group of glittery Trolls are firing globs of glitter into the air, the blitz of cute, colorful, bright, and shiny stuff is almost too much to handle.
Thankfully, the film calms down significantly after that. It's as if director Mike Mitchell (Walt Dohm is credited as the film's co-director) set up a litmus test for our patience with the big opening number. If we can handle it, surely we can accept the premise of little creatures that see life as a singing, dancing, hap-hap-happy party.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows and glitter-bombs, though. The Trolls are in peril before the story proper even begins. Everything was peaceful and fine with them until the Bergens discovered them.
If the Trolls are always cheery and jolly, the Bergens are their polar opposite. They're big, clumsy, and strangely shaped beasts that are always miserable—perhaps because even the youngest of them have double chins, jagged teeth, and bodies that are either round or lanky. The Bergens wanted to be happy, our chipper narrator tells us, and it turns out that eating a Troll made them so. The King of the Bergens transplanted the tree the Trolls called home into the center of Bergen Town. Every year, the Bergens held a holiday in which everyone got to feast on Trolls.
To keep complaints of crying and nightmares at bay, the tale of the potential genocide of cute, little creatures is presented in a kid-friendly scrapbook style, since our protagonist Poppy (voice of Anna Kendrick) is a scrapbooking enthusiast. Twenty years after escaping the Bergens, the Trolls have found a new home in the forest, and Poppy is going to throw a party to celebrate the anniversary. Branch (voice of Justin Timberlake, whose singing ability is often referenced but, amusingly, kept to a minimum), who seems to be the only grumpy and color-free Troll in existence, worries that the raucous festivities will attract the Bergens.
Needless to say, the party does, indeed, attract the attention of the former, exiled chef (voice of Christine Baranski) of Bergen Town, who captures a handful of the creatures to bring to the new Bergen King Gristle (voice of Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The Bergens haven't been happy in two decades, so they revel in the idea of having a literal taste of happiness again. Poppy and a reluctant Branch set off to rescue their friends.
The music is a mix of decades-spanning pop songs, often mixed together, and original tunes, and they work well enough in the big numbers. The music is more effective in the few scenes it's used specifically for a character, such as Branch finally breaking his silence about why he doesn't sing and, especially, when the lonely, lovelorn scullery maid Bridget (voice of Zooey Deschanel, a standout among a fine vocal cast) croons a lonely, lovelorn Lionel Richie ballad, accompanying her dreams of love with the inattentive Bergen king. In an attempt to escape the king's castle, the Trolls end up making friends with Bridget, even giving her a makeover to get the king to notice her.
The central theme here is happiness—especially how easy it seems for some to possess and how difficult it seems for others to obtain. If that cheer seems phony at first, that might be part of Mitchell's point, because, once the screenplay (written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger) arrives in a Troll-free Bergen town, the film's mood drops—from its color palette (The brightness of the forest turns to earthy and almost mucous tones) to its songs ("I ain't happy," a chorus of shambling Bergens mumble-sings while going about their miserable day). It's like the crash after a potent sugar rush.
The turn, such as it is, comes with that date between Bridget and Gristle, as the pair discover happiness without the aid of a Troll snack. Take it as a blatant anti-drug message (There's an air of addiction to the early scenes in Bergen Town, and the desperation for just one taste of Troll later on seems relevant), or just take it as lesson about learning to find pleasure even within the humdrum routine of life. As the drama for an animated musical aimed at kids, it at least poses a positive, optimistic message.
There's not much more to dig into here, if there really was much of anything in the first place. The success of Trolls comes from its joyful attitude, its balance of broad moods, and the likelihood that we'll be humming a few songs after it's finished. It's a minor diversion, but it's still an entertaining one.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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