Finally, someone’s made a movie featuring those good luck totems adored in bingo halls across the country that reached the apex of their popularity several decades ago. While Trolls may not exactly tap into the cultural zeitgeist with the product it’s resurrecting, it does follow the current trend of toys-of-yore to screen. Everything from action figures to Lego (which was actually a good one) is fair game for adaptation. Probably not Rubik’s Cubes. (Maybe not?)
Though we may scoff at readymade marketing connections, the biggest disappointment of Trolls isn’t just the attempt to find that sweet spot between nostalgia and new merchandising streams. It’s that the attempt is unconcerned with leaving any kind of impression beyond some weird animation. The voice cast is energetic, but their pep can’t mask the movie’s lack of smarts or insight. Colors are bright and the songs are upbeat though they’re not catchy and will unite parents and kids in indifference. Everything is not awesome; everything is just okay.
The bizarre troll dolls with the spiky hair had no mythology, so it was up to writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger to come up with a framework on which to build a bland story with a simplistic message and enough opportunities to break into song.
So, once upon a time the ridiculously happy trolls lived in a big, beautiful tree where they sang and made merry. The Bergens – large gray-green creatures that actually look like traditional under-the-bridge-dwelling trolls – built their settlement around the troll tree because they enjoy the taste of the spritely beings. The trolls escape and find a new happy place, only to give away their position with a loud dance party. With several trolls now in the clutches of the Bergens, it’s up to lively troll Princess Poppy (voice of Anna Kendrick) and the only unhappy troll in town, Branch (Justin Timberlake), to save them from being eaten.
The heroes’ journey is propelled by day-glow visuals that burst off the screen (especially in 3D!). Forest creatures have a fuzzy sheen and everything in the environment has a graphic texture. The trip even gets borderline trippy every now and again. There’s lots of glitter and several clever uses for the trolls’ trademark trusses. There’s even cupcake poop. A nice contrast to the aggressively garish animation style is the flat representation of Poppy’s scrapbooking, a hobby of hers used for some expositional narration.
The vibrancy doesn’t extend to the unremarkable story that a disinterested toddler could have diagramed fairly quickly. The Bergens believe the only way to be happy is to eat trolls, therefore, after the trolls are gone their society is one of constant melancholy. If only they could discover other ways to be happy, like, for instance their dim boy-king (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) finding joy in the companionship of lowly servant Bridget (Zooey Deschanel). Maybe even Poppy and her infectious perkiness could help get them together! And I hope Branch gets over his Screenplay 101 hang-ups and learns to sing with his friends again. There’s a guy named Timberlake listed on the soundtrack, so fingers crossed.
Kendrick, Timberlake, and Deschanel make a lot of the proceedings bearable with their infectious charm and showcase some signature personality. On the flip side, so do James Corden and Russell Brand as one-note annoying trolls. Christine Baranski is a fun Bergen baddie who’s angling for a position of power, or to get back in good graces, or… something.
If Trolls were more articulate with its how-to-be-happy-and-appreciate-what-you-have message and was able to better fold the sentiment into the out-there animation, it may be more fun to watch.