Trolls is a movie that proves infectiously lovable and earnest, despite its lack of depth and transparent motivations as a movie seemingly made to sell toys that have come in and out of being fads. Dreamworks Animation has generally done a fine job of balancing animated entertainment that appeals as much to adults as it does to children, even rivaling their main competition, Disney/Pixar in that respect when they’re at their best, though Trolls skews a bit more noticeably towards children. Adults can still enjoy it, as with most any of Dreamworks Animation’s projects of recent years, but they won’t get nearly as much out of it as something like Kung Fu Panda 3 from this past January.
Adding to the fact that Trolls feels like it’s especially geared towards younger viewers is the unexpected choice to make it a musical-themed movie, something that Dreamworks Animation normally completely shies away from, since 1998’s The Prince of Egypt, in fact, from almost two decades ago! That’s not to say that musicals are always geared towards children, especially since Illumination Entertainment will be offering the promising-looking Sing in theatres late next month, but Trolls does seem to have a slight air of wanting to distract with attractive visuals and pop covers, whenever it doesn’t have any better ideas in terms of making its storyline more distinct or clever. Both adults and children will have fun with Trolls, and it’s charming enough to lend itself to a potential new film franchise for Dreamworks Animation, but it’s also easy to feel like the studio isn’t always on their A-game here, at least beyond the admittedly amazing presentation.
Trolls stars Anna Kendrick as Princess Poppy of the Troll race, alongside Justin Timberlake as Branch, the one sad sack Troll in the otherwise absurdly happy and optimistic Troll society. The Trolls’ happiness and positivity is craved by a large, ugly race called the Bergens, who believe that eating the Trolls is the only thing that can grant them happiness. When the Bergens get ahold of several Trolls, it’s up to Poppy and Branch to save them, as sort of an ‘odd couple’ crew. Where Poppy is incredibly naive, but brave, Branch is much smarter, but also less determined.
From that very description of the premise, it’s easy to discern the entire plot progression of Trolls for the most part. There are a handful of twists with the character arcs at least, and for what it’s worth, all of the Troll performers, from Gwen Stefani’s DJ Suki to Russell Brand’s Creek to Jeffrey Tambor’s King Peppy to Kunal Nayyar’s Guy Diamond to James Corden’s Biggie, all do a standout job of being entertaining. Almost none of these characters have much personality beyond the same one-note jokes though, and heck, even the Troll race itself is kind of a one-note joke, beyond Branch.
Despite the movie supposedly being about the Trolls, it’s actually the Bergens that feel like the more interesting characters. One of the biggest standouts in the cast is actually Zooey Deschanel as a Bergen scullery maid named Bridget, one of the only innately kind Bergens that also struggles with being in love with the king, a spoiled, but uncertain young ruler named Gristle Jr., voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Making matters worse is that Bridget is frequently abused by the movie’s main antagonist, Chef, voiced by Christine Baranski, with Chef wanting to cook and serve the Trolls to redeem herself to the Bergen race after being cast out at the start of the movie.
There’s potential for an interesting added moral dimension between both Chef and Bridget, but in the case of the former especially, Trolls disappointingly takes the easy way out. Bridget’s arc meanwhile feels awkwardly sandwiched into another more pressing conflict, as if Trolls suddenly takes a break in the second act to be about something entirely different, before returning to the matter that started things off in the supposed climax. The characters are fun, be they Troll or Bergen, but there’s a lot of missed opportunities when it comes to making them more than meets the eye. This hurts the movie’s message a bit, since it’s not exactly sure whether it’s advocating emotional balance or forcing unflinching happiness in the end.
Trolls is likable, well-presented and fun to watch, but its most problematic element is the storyline, which feels like an awkward mishmash of ideas with severe structuring issues. At worst, Trolls feels like a metaphorical car accident of several different movie pitches that are smashed together into a serviceable, but somewhat inconsistent package. Even as the movie begins with Poppy, and later, a begrudging Branch, wanting to set off to rescue their kidnapped friends, Trolls then takes a strange detour into the Bergen, Bridget’s romantic woes, before the Trolls end up in danger again, and this leads into a bit of a non-climax that is rushed through and immediately dovetails into a very abrupt ending. The movie being rather short on depth makes it easy to follow, even for children, but even then, Trolls has the aftertaste of feeling disjointed and clumsily put together.
Compounding the disappointment is a few interesting characters that are introduced, and then almost immediately abandoned in the next scene. The movie also similarly makes a show of how perilous and dangerous the journey from the Trolls’ new dwelling to the Bergens’ kingdom is, but then treats that entire sequence as a mere musical number. It’s a very good musical number, mind you, but it also turns what’s ideally supposed to be an exciting adventure into a quick few moments of fun, but under-developed filler sequences.
Honestly, the movie may have been better if it had made more tweaks to the premise before release, which might have improved the structuring and smoothed out the story hiccups. Maybe the Trolls never should have escaped the Bergens at the start of the movie, and maybe Chef never should have been cast out. If the movie simply had the Trolls trying to live and be happy in a world where they’re constantly under threat of being devoured by Bergens, that would have made for a more interesting, more distinct and more truly emotional movie, as well as better tying the whole Bridget storyline into also having to save captured Trolls. Perhaps Dreamworks Animation was concerned about selling toys to kids, like I said, and thus didn’t want Trolls to be too challenging for child audiences, but that doesn’t change the fact that this plot could have used a bit more tightening than the somewhat shaky storytelling that we ended up with here. A better, more ambitious storyline likely wouldn’t have hurt the toy sales, frankly.
Trolls is directed by Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell, two directors that have little to no experience with prior Dreamworks Animation features (beyond Mitchell directing 2010’s middling Shrek Forever After), which might explain why Trolls doesn’t really feel like the studio’s usual best. The movie’s presentation and fun spirit are definitely realized well, as I’ve said, and the way that Dohrn and Mitchell realize the craft-like environments alongside the plush-looking Troll and Bergen designs is particularly impressive. There’s also plenty of personality gleaned from the actors’ performances, even when many of their characters’ fundamentally written personalities don’t expand beyond a single dimension, or maybe a couple of dimensions with the lead Trolls and Bridget.
Again, Trolls is infectious and exceptionally vibrant, getting the fun and musical spirit of the movie completely right for the most part. Beyond the surface layer though, it does feel like the movie is sometimes coasting on the bare minimum. It relies on storytelling turns and tricks that have been done in numerous other animated movies, which might not be apparent to children, though adults will definitely feel like they’ve seen better at these points. Even at its least inspired though, Trolls is quite easy to watch, ultimately feeling like a quick shot of cinematic junk food that will please in the moment, and have you exiting the theatre with a grin, though its magic quickly wears off after just a short while.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
To Trolls’ credit, it avoids the urge to compose its soundtrack entirely around timely pop hits, instead relying on a lot of likable classics that have been proven to stand the test of time, rather than what’s on the charts now, and no doubt not forever. Christophe Beck composes the movie’s score, with musical direction overseen by Justin Timberlake himself, and both the original compositions and cover songs are pretty good all around, serving the movie’s musical flavouring very well. Some of the covers are better than others, of course, but you do get a healthy dose of solid renditions of classics such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s, “September”, Lionel Richie’s, “Hello”, and Paul Simon’s, “The Sound of Silence”, performed by Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, and of course, Justin Timberlake. The movie also has a fairly catchy and enjoyable tie-in single performed by Timberlake, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, which has naturally been placed all over the movie’s marketing, appropriately being an inoffensive, if simple-minded song that makes for a fairly potent earworm.
The rest of the movie’s sound work is pretty serviceable, if very lightweight. Trolls comes with the slight implication that its titular race is actually made of plush and rainbows, so they sound appropriately delicate, even during the more tense sequences. There’s a little more weight to the Bergens, who feel more slapstick-y and far less graceful, but even then, Trolls’ audio seems to be deliberately designed to emphasize whimsy without weight. The result is that its world never truly feels dangerous or foreboding, though this movie is also very unlikely to frighten young children too, on the bright side.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, Trolls really is a thing of beauty when it comes to animation. Even amidst this year’s animation standouts like Kung Fu Panda 3 and Kubo & The Two Strings, Trolls could be the most visually arresting animated movie of the year! The bright, colourful and vibrant presentation is constantly appealing to look at, but even beyond that, the incredible amount of detail in the plush-like trolls, and especially their highly detailed, flexible hair, one of the defining features of the toys that inspired this movie, is truly outstanding. The character animations throughout the movie with the Trolls in particular are also quite impressive, and as I said, the craft-like environments give the movie a unique style and identity amid other Dreamworks Animation projects. Kids will definitely love the visual presentation throughout, and even adults will be very impressed with it, since not even Disney or Pixar has managed a movie quite this visually ambitious and well-presented in a while.
Naturally, Trolls’ already sublime presentation also gets even better in 3D, where the visual flourishes effectively leap out at the audience, and make the animation even more eye-catching. The 3D presentation lets up a bit in the movie’s latter portion, when the excitement strangely seems to get lower as it should be getting higher, but the especially immersive animation and audience-enveloping effects really do make Trolls’ 3D cut the ideal way to experience it. You can still easily enjoy this movie’s breathtaking animation and potent sense of positive energy with a 2D showing, but with the handful of especially great 3D flourishes on offer, those who are so inclined to indulge in the 3D experience will find the added price of a 3D ticket well worth it here.
When stacked up against Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 from the start of this year, Trolls ends up being the lesser movie in the end, due to its shakier direction and faulty story structure most notably, even if it somehow manages to outdo even the gorgeous Kung Fu Panda 3’s presentation with a new high standard for filmmaking animation. Trolls’ presentation definitely raises the bar for Dreamworks Animation’s work at least, even if the movie doesn’t deliver as much satisfaction in the narrative department, particularly for adults.
Considering some of the unimpressive marketing behind Trolls however, the movie is also considerably better than you might imagine it is. Kids will certainly get the most out of the experience, but parents will find Trolls to be inoffensive, and genuinely fun at its best. Even if you don’t have kids, and you’re simply an adult fan of Dreamworks Animation, Trolls is worth checking out for its sense of style and charm alone, even if it may not join your Blu-Ray collection of better Dreamworks Animation works like the various Madagascar, How To Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda movies.
Musical enthusiasts will also appreciate the great soundtrack behind the movie, which they may even want to own to listen to at their leisure, and Trolls does justify at least a decent degree of franchise potential with the possibility of designing new soundtracks around new cinematic adventures in the future. For a movie inspired by a toy, Trolls certainly could have turned out a lot worse for sure, even if it’s still trailing the most interesting and original of Dreamworks Animation’s offerings.
Trolls is an upbeat, fun and infectiously charming new Dreamworks Animation movie, despite suffering from flat characters and a confused, poorly-structured storyline.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
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THE GOOD STUFF
Stellar animation that raises the bar for the genre
Lovable soundtrack based more on classics than trends
Charming, infectious positive spirit
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Characters are flat and lack effective development