Directed by Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn (co-director)
Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glen Berger
Starring Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher MIntz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Gwen Stephani, John Cleese, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor, and Ron Funches
Runtime: 92 minutes
If you’ve been waiting for Dreamworks Animation to go full-bore into animated musicals, wait no more! After nearly 20 years chasing after Disney, and sometimes passing them, Dreamworks Animation has finally dipped its toes into the giant’s true territory and we are no better for it. In fact, we may be worse off. I mean, what can you legitimately hope to get from a movie based on bingo good-luck totems? The answer is a story that feels like it was rejected for a Smurfs movie and songs that attempt to trade in on nostalgia. Not Trolls nostalgia, just general nostalgia from random decades (‘70s, ‘90s, ‘00s) with no original songs at all, just covers. If you really were waiting for Dreamworks to make an animated musical, you were waiting in vain.
The ‘story’ is that Poppy (Anna Kendrick), princess of the Trolls and the happiest one amongst the happiest creatures in their world, decides to throw a big party on the 20th anniversary of the vanquishing (or hiding from) the Bergens (their chief predators who eat Trolls so they can be happy. Without Trolls, they are a miserable lot) that her father was apparently responsible for. She decides this party will be the brightest and loudest ever thrown, but is warned against making too much noise by Branch (Justin Timberlake), a perpetually grumpy Troll who is always studying Bergens and on the defensive constantly. Poppy disregards Branch, has loud music and fireworks and leads a Bergen chef (Christine Baranski) right to them and many of her friends are taken to be eaten by King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the newly crowned child king of the Bergens so he can experience happiness. Poppy sets out on a rescue mission with a begrudging Branch where she tries to get at the heard of his unwillingness to be happy.
If it seems like you’ve seen this movie before, that’s because you have. Many times. Many, many times. It’s kind of disheartening that the studio that made the great How to Train Your Dragon couplet and the wonderful Kung-Fu Panda trilogy can spend so much time on such a depressingly standard movie. The animation is, as always, top notch, and the voice work is functional, with Kendrick being the stand-out and Timberlake being pretty good but the litany of talented comedians that fill out the supporting roles are tragically wasted (as some of them may have been when they read the script and agreed to do the movie).
To the film’s credit, it’s never particularly boring or annoying (as it so easily could have been). The character design and animation is spectacular and the colors are sure to keep small children glued to the screen. One sequence does stand out as being quite good: as Poppy and Branch are looking for a way to enter Bergentown, they encounter an anthropomorphic cloud (voiced by co-director Walt Dohrn) who is the single best character in the entire movie. His appearance changes with his mood, so when he’s talking to Poppy, he’s a nice fluffy cloud but when Branch makes a few negative comments, he turns grey and rains. It’s a clever character and a great concept that is as wasted as much of the vocal talent because they all belong in a much better movie.
As with all animation, the script makes or breaks the picture. In this case, writers Jonathan Aibel and Glen Berger broke it. The writing duo aren’t without some great work under their belts either. They, as a team, have shared credit on all three Kung-Fu Panda films and the very entertaining The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water as well as lots of episodes of MADtv and King of the Hill. Unfortunately, they are also responsible for two of the four (!) Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. And it is in that vein that they wrote Trolls. That’s not to say that there aren’t some emotional moments, like the ones they captured in the Kung-Fu Panda films. Branch recounting why he doesn’t sing and is constantly fearful of the Bergen’s return is heart-rending, and the sequence where the Trolls are taken is scary. The rest of it, though, is just so standard and uninspired that the good moments don’t really elevate it much and are easily lost in the shuffle.
Then there are the musical numbers. Kendrick and Timberlake are obviously talented singers, with Kendrick frequently taking on singing parts such as Pitch Perfect 1 & 2 and Into the Woods and singing in several other films that weren’t musicals and Timberlake is, well…Justin Timberlake. So the songs are well performed, they just don’t really do much for the narrative. There are no original songs that move the story forward, as in most musicals, these are just there to make this a musical and either justify the casting or make more use of it. I shouldn’t say the songs don’t fit, because they do but in a soundtrack sort of way and not movie musical sort of way. For instance: Kendrick sings Simon and Garfunkle’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ when Branch is being particularly grumpy and loner-ish. That works, but you’d expect it more playing over the scene and not being sung in it. Most of the songs are like that, and for that reason never seemed to fit.
Trolls just fails to be as enchanting as it thinks it is. Its many components never quite connect into one coherent film, episodically moving along tired story threads with characters that are barely more defined than one or two characteristics. Nothing works together, which is ironic considering the Troll’s mantra of cooperation and community. Hopefully this misfire will make Dreamworks think twice about stepping into the musical arena again and stick to their strengths.