You know that it’s been a hell of a weird year when Universal builds an entire marketing campaign around billing an unimpressive R-rated movie like The Hunt as a proudly controversial release, to general apathy, only to inadvertently be responsible for this year’s true most controversial movie just one month later, a movie that’s, ironically, a family-friendly production. Trolls World Tour began life as the inevitable, inoffensive sequel to 2016’s considerably successful Trolls, a bizarre jukebox musical adaptation of a peculiar toy line that hadn’t been popular in decades. Dreamworks Animation was in fact so confident in the Trolls IP that they purchased the rights not just to the movie, but to the entire toy franchise that inspired it! This was all back when Dreamworks Animation had a production deal with 20th Century Fox as well, a movie studio that would itself become swallowed by Disney as of last year, not long after Dreamworks Animation ended up being wholesale acquired by Universal.
The original Trolls was a gamble for Dreamworks Animation, but one that paid off very well. Thus, there wasn’t much to initially read into with Trolls World Tour, a movie that Universal and Dreamworks Animation would inevitably mandate, in order to keep capitalizing on the huge franchise push that Dreamworks Animation made with Trolls several years ago. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, shuttering movie theatres across the world throughout much of this year, and threatening the mainstream movie industry with indefinite suspension! Universal led the charge on trying to combat this dire threat to the movie industry as well, presenting three of their recent theatrical releases, specifically their supposedly ‘controversial’ survival-thriller, The Hunt, as well as their recent remakes of Emma and The Invisible Man, for an early home rental release on video-on-demand platforms. At first, this seemed to please everyone, despite a bit of a steep rental fee.
Then, Universal announced that, due to the ongoing pandemic shutting down pretty much every major movie theatre chain across the world, Trolls World Tour would pretty much entirely skip its planned theatrical release, and instead release immediately for premium rental on video-on-demand platforms, for effortless home viewing. While the many families stuck at home during lockdown praised this bold initiative as accommodating them and their restless children in a time of worldwide crisis, many movie theatre chains were furious at this supposed denying of their investment. AMC Theatres even went as far as to boycott all future Universal movie releases after they re-opened, in response to Trolls World Tour going straight-to-VOD, a stance that was also taken by Regal soon afterward, encompassing a Universal ban for two of the biggest theatre chains in the United States!
Thus, Trolls World Tour ended up becoming the most controversial movie of 2020, completely without meaning to! Having finally seen the movie myself as well, I’m also left with only one question… Really? This? This is what AMC, Regal and certain other theatre branches are up in arms about losing? Trolls World Tour would have made money, for sure, had it been allowed to enjoy an uninterrupted theatrical run as originally planned in a pre-COVID world, but not nearly as much money as red-hot Universal movie properties like Fast & Furious or Jurassic World reliably rake in. Plus, Universal benefits as much as any other studio from the insane box office numbers that movies like those aforementioned properties generate for them in movie theatres, the lion’s share of which goes back to the studio, with only a pittance often left for the theatres that host these first-run blockbuster movies in the first place.
Thus, the ‘controversy’ surrounding Trolls World Tour feels like the baffling result of struggling theatre chains trying to slay imaginary demons before the pandemic is even over, and any kind of status quo regarding theatrical movie releases can reasonably be in question. Even then, it’s extremely unlikely that Universal would permanently pull their movies from any theatrical circuit, or else, blockbuster releases like F9: The Fast Saga and No Time to Die would have headed straight to VOD themselves, without the lengthy release delays that they’ve now sustained. Most importantly though, is the reality that Trolls World Tour is… Fine, as far as sequels go. It’s not exemplary, but it’s acceptable. It’s well-animated, but shallow, energetically performed, but disposable, and full of lively music, but also weird and non-sensical. It’s a fair distraction for adults, a harmless diversion for kids, and it does its job… Which is certainly not worthy of an industry-altering fuss.
Trolls World Tour reunites us with Anna Kendrick’s Poppy, now a queen, who finds herself trying to adapt to the pressure of a now-Bergen-free Troll kingdom. Justin Timberlake’s Branch also remains a steadfast ally of Poppy, and one struggling with romantic feelings toward her, because of course he is. Kendrick and Timberlake remain one of the best draws of this movie, even as Branch has to inevitably regress a bit back toward being a cynic, despite his character discovering his, “True colours” as a peppy Troll in his own right, following the first movie. Branch’s regression is handled as well as it possibly could be though, re-framing him as a sensible, level-headed straight man to Poppy’s hyper-optimistic diplomat, who believes her kingdom’s offer of friendship will be enough to dissuade the darker machinations of the antagonistic Rock Trolls.
Speaking of the Rock Trolls, they’re headed up by the passionately, highly brazen Queen Barb, voiced by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom. The Rock Trolls will probably be the most entertaining personalities for adult viewers here, not just because they’re new, but because they contain many of the best cheeky nods to rock music culture, specifically its mainstream heyday during the 1970’s and 1980’s. The biggest of these in-jokes is a surprisingly hilarious bit part for Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, who voices Barb’s sleepy, semi-senile father, King Thrash, a character who seems only passingly interested in his daughter’s plan for the Troll kingdoms, and would much rather catch a nap. This is a small, but incredibly funny commentary on likely public reception to the idea of music uniting under a genre that has largely fallen out of the mainstream in recent years, ironically being surpassed by pop.
There remain a few other key supporting characters among the ensemble here too, even with most of this movie leaving the Pop Trolls’ familiar kingdom, and these most often include returning side personalities like James Corden’s Biggie, and Ron Funches’ Cooper. These characters are mostly gag fodder throughout this sequel, beyond a fairly interesting (if poorly explained) twist with Cooper later in the movie, but fortunately, the trip around the Troll kingdoms also allows us to meet some more new characters. These personalities also have some decent star power behind them, particularly Sam Rockwell’s Hickory, a Country Troll that ends up becoming a surprising ally to Poppy and Branch.
But what does it amount to in the end? A simple movie, with simple characters, and especially characters that don’t add much to the conversation that Trolls World Tour seems to want to start about tolerance and cultural identity. Characters flip moral and intellectual stances on a dime, and their motivations don’t seem to be fueled by much more than the most basic of provocations, even if they are rather understandably rooted in some unfortunate human history. Some will claim that this is a Trolls movie, and one shouldn’t think about it too hard, and that would be fine, if Trolls World Tour wasn’t constantly poking at a deep, intellectually complex idea that it’s nonetheless too unmotivated to fully trust, lest it challenge the audience too much. That’s really a shame, because Trolls World Tour could have taken its characters somewhere truly special, rather than barely throwing much in the way of real, lasting hurdles before them.
Trolls World Tour sets out with a surprisingly inspired premise, even more inspired than that of the first movie, in fact! You see, in the Trolls movie universe, the familiar, pop music-fueled kingdom of Queen Poppy is apparently only one small part of the Trolls’ overall world. As it turns out, there are actually several high-profile Troll kingdoms across the land, each being themed around a particular kind of music. Whereas Poppy’s people are built around pop music, other Troll kingdoms instead theme themselves around country music, funk music, techno music, classical music, and, most importantly, rock music. This importance on the rock genre is naturally because the Rock Trolls serve as this movie’s antagonists, desiring to unite all Trolls under one shared banner of rock, specifically by stealing the magic strings of each major Troll kingdom.
This is a surprisingly great idea for a Trolls movie sequel, one that not only further fleshes out the world of the Trolls to strong effect (even with previous antagonists, the Bergens being pretty much entirely absent for this sophomore outing), but one that also effectively leverages the first movie’s decision to build itself so heavily around its soundtrack. Even the jabs at the original Trolls’ annoyingly catchy, pop-heavy tunes work really well, especially when that can now be contrasted by the brash sentiments of the Rock Trolls. It nicely marks both a celebration of the diversity behind music, and a powerful testament to how we can stand against intolerance and racism, while at the same time not sacrificing our core cultural identities. Frankly, this is a story direction that’s too smart for this kind of movie.
Thus, inevitably, Trolls World Tour stops well short of its true potential, even considering how incredibly timely the movie has now become in 2020, a year not only defined by a devastating global pandemic, but also worldwide protests against systemic racism in the U.S. especially. This sequel brings up so many interesting ideas, but it also seems deathly afraid of alienating children and families. As a result, it boils everything down to a series of easy answers, which is fair enough for a colourful, kid-friendly distraction, but also makes you wonder how more ambitious writing could have better capitalized on this plot idea.
Further hurting the otherwise promising storyline of Trolls World Tour is how surprisingly unmemorable it is. Despite an adventure that’s fun in the moment, Trolls World Tour is one of those movies that feels like it’s leaving your mind even as you watch it. It never goes below the surface of the questions it wants to raise, and the themes it wants to explore. This is frustrating, since The LEGO Movie in particular proved that even a glorified toy commercial, which this sequel practically is, could nonetheless thrive as a surprisingly thoughtful and heartfelt examination of social commentary and themes surrounding family and unity. Trolls World Tour however is content to be undemanding and disposable, which is fair enough, but it definitely leaves a staggering amount of possibilities on the table when it comes to both humour and lasting investment in future Trolls movies.
Walt Dohrn, co-director of the original Trolls, steps up as lead director for Trolls World Tour, continuing his panache for doing quite a few jobs for Dreamworks Animation, from writing to storyboarding to voice acting and now, lead direction. Dohrn has quite a lengthy resume at Dreamworks Animation as well, having assisted in some way with movies ranging from Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, all the way to The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Those latter two offerings should provide a pretty clear picture of Dohrn’s direction style as well, since Trolls World Tour is very hyperactive at the best of times, constantly leaning on its sound and animation to grab the most attention from the audience. I suppose that you can’t fault Dohrn’s conviction though, in any case, considering that he’s once again voicing several characters in this follow-up, even taking over the voice of King Peppy from the now-disgraced Jeffrey Tambor, contributing his own energy to the mix in performance as much as he does behind the metaphorical camera.
In fact, Dohrn seems to go all in on Trolls World Tour’s seemingly innate enthusiasm, appearing to exert minimal influence over the voice actors, while the music and visuals in this sequel do most of the heavy lifting. This leads to a follow-up that’s well-presented, but also doesn’t dive too deeply into its otherwise strong themes of racial equality versus racial homogenization. Trolls World Tour hits upon so many interesting ideas in its commentary, but they’re often frustratingly wasted on a movie that’s more concerned with cheap gags for children, rather than serious engagement for adults, or, hell, even slightly older children. I guess that’s fine, but it’s nonetheless true that Trolls World Tour deserved to be more impactful than it is. Instead, this sequel often settles for the path of least resistance when it comes to entertainment, making it perfectly adequate, but also failing to leave a lasting impression with its otherwise potent dose of infectious energy.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
Trolls World Tour, like its predecessor, places a lot of emphasis on its music. To its credit, this sequel also makes a deliberate effort to examine and deviate from its predecessor’s heavy reliance on pop music numbers to boot, a frequent issue with animated filmmaking in general. If nothing else, Trolls World Tour’s varied music selection appeals to many different tastes as well, with the very narrative woven through medleys of pop, country, rock, classical and funk, all taking their turn to contribute to a musical concoction that sounds pretty sharp, even when it is butchering some classic favourites to cram kid-friendly joke lyrics onto them. Sometimes however, the songs are just played straight as well, creating a bit of an inconsistent focus on whether Trolls World Tour wants to lean into its own world’s creativity, or whether it just wants to be a fantastical version of Glee.
Trolls World Tour nonetheless weaves music into practically every fiber of its being, for better or for worse. This sequel also comes complete with its own new pop single, once again courtesy of Justin Timberlake, this time with the help of SZA, called, “The Other Side”, which is somehow blander than the otherwise annoyingly infectious, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from the first Trolls movie. Theodore Shapiro’s original score for Trolls World Tour at least makes a commendable effort to mix up the instrumental music, and make it a little more unpredictable than what was on offer in the previous movie, but even that’s frequently drowned out by Trolls World Tour’s constant desire to make use of licensed songs, often for random, off-the-wall gags that are scattershot at best.
The rest of the audio design in this movie is similarly zany and cartoon-ish, as one can expect. Trolls World Tour is definitely not wanting for enthusiasm, and that’s made apparent in its highly-energized sound mixing. The scenes with the Rock Trolls are especially pronounced, admittedly cementing them as surprisingly imposing antagonists, even within a world that otherwise feels too safe and wholesome to provide any real sense of stakes. The sound design also frequently changes up between the various locales encompassing Poppy’s and Branch’s quest, becoming more brash, relaxed, surreal or classy, depending on the current set piece. This means that the overall sound design in Trolls World Tour is always giving its all, which is likely unsurprising for a movie franchise that’s all about the love of music.
One of the surprisingly best elements of the original Trolls movie is how excellently animated it was. The movie unfolded almost like a pop-up book having come to life, complete with sets and characters that appeared stuffed, built from paper craft, and/or frequently packed with glitter. This craft-themed direction naturally extends into Trolls World Tour, which, even on a home television or tablet, looks pretty amazing! Much like the soundtrack, there’s a ton of energy and enthusiasm placed behind the animation of Trolls World Tour, which is already making fantastic use of colours and texture details, even when static, nicely varying the selection of Troll landscapes with their visuals as much as their preferred music. It’s really too bad that the VOD release inevitably doesn’t give you an option to watch Trolls World Tour in 3D, where its animation would likely pop with the most effectiveness, though that option will eventually arrive, if you’re willing to wait for next month’s 3D Blu-Ray release.
Even when viewed flat in 2D however, Trolls World Tour is another superb testament to the immense visual talent behind Dreamworks Animation. It remains full of fuzz, glitter and pop-up-esque Pop Troll character designs, but thanks to the imaginative new music-themed settings in this sequel, Trolls World Tour can further push the bounds of the Trolls’ character presentation. These include creating centaur-like Country Music Trolls, mermaid-resembling Techno Trolls, and of course, the punk-ish Rock Trolls, who work with a more muted, cool colour-driven spectrum, but nonetheless look very nicely distinct from the almost sickeningly saccharine Pop Trolls. In fact, in an inspired way, Trolls World Tour smartly pokes fun at its own predecessor’s aggressively sugar-sweet presentation through the Rock Trolls, leading to sight gags that provide a joke contrast more effectively varied this time out, if not any deeper than the same wired, kid-friendly attention-grabbing that Trolls World Tour is still all too happy to rely on.
It’s easy to overthink Trolls World Tour, when it’s so clearly content to be a harmless distraction that’s primarily geared towards children, despite its huge potential to equally appeal to adults. As it stands though, Dreamworks Animation disappointingly took the easy way out with this sequel’s writing, despite a great premise, and despite all of the ways it could have more earnestly pushed the envelope, and dared to compete with the more frequently interpretive and cerebral animated productions that are often delivered by Disney and Pixar in particular. Heck, even Dreamworks Animation themselves have realized projects that are capable of such narrative and psychological depth in the past, most notably with the Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon movies.
Despite the original Trolls ultimately being surprisingly satisfactory though, Trolls World Tour ends up feeling like it falls short of its potential, potential that was already being hinted at during the first Trolls movie four years ago. If nothing else, this movie is gorgeously animated, and sports a varied, enjoyable soundtrack that adults probably will legitimately enjoy as much as children, especially when it makes a concerted effort to not actually go all in on pop music for a change. Despite this admittedly impressive window dressing however, Trolls World Tour is too shallow and disposable to stick with viewers for very long, even if children are nonetheless still bound to get a kick out of it.
That’s frustrating, because Trolls World Tour’s timely themes of racial identity and cultural preservation feel perfectly positioned for 2020, a year that has forced pretty much the entire world to re-think established cultural institutions, and how minorities can often be adversely affected by them. This movie could have joined Sony Pictures Animation’s The Angry Birds Movie 2 as a surprisingly smart sequel to a disposable cash grab of a movie, but as it stands, Trolls World Tour doesn’t seem to have enough lasting ambition to make that happen.
Thus, I say again to miffed movie theatres, is Trolls World Tour going straight to VOD really worth all the fuss? Is it worth lashing out at an unrealistic precedent supposedly being set by a legitimately devastating global pandemic? If you’re going to make an example of Universal, you could have at least picked a much better Universal movie that’s much more closely tied to the theatrical experience. Might I suggest The Invisible Man for your senseless corporate soapbox instead?
Trolls World Tour is well-produced, charming and fun for kids in the moment, but it's also a disappointingly shallow and forgettable take on some very timely themes about race and cultural value.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
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THE GOOD STUFF
Enthusiastic, well-performed Troll personalities
Lively soundtrack with a strong mix of musical stylings
Vibrant pop-up-esque animation continues to impress
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Characters lack meaningful development or emotions
Excessively simplistic storyline that betrays the smart premise