In the pantheon of movies made from existing toy lines, there tend to be more misses than hits. While films like Clue and The Lego Movie have proven that the idea has some merit to it, by 2016 filmgoers had mostly been left with such critical and commercial failures as Battleship, Bratz, and the ever-present-yet-much-reviled Transformers series.
At the same time, Dreamworks Animation had hit a bit of a financial low-point with its feature output (save for the critical success of How to Train Your Dragon 2) before being bought by Comcast in August of that year. Longtime fans of the studio’s output (myself included) became even more dismayed to learn that their next project following the merger would be a film version of the eighties toy line, Trolls. And let’s just say that the teasers, casting announcements, and overall marketing machine surrounding the film didn’t do much to elevate expectations. In fact, the only real positive marketing push that the film got was Justin Timberlake’s song “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
I sat in the theater, waited with bated breath, and prayed that the film wouldn’t be terribly abysmal. When I left, I did have some positive feelings about the film. However, I continued to believe that the reason I thought highly of it at the time was that I had come in with low expectations for it. One year later, I think the time has come to determine whether I cut the film too much slack in my initial viewing, or if it really deserves the praise I bestowed.
Trolls tells the story of the titular creatures led by the incandescently happy Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick). The clan has been free from the clutches of the evil Bergens for twenty years when a Bergen chef (Christine Baranski) threatens to serve them up at their annual Trollstice. With her unrelenting optimism—and the reluctant assistance of an anti-singing-and-dancing troll named Branch (Justin Timberlake)—Poppy sets out to save her friends and bring peace between the two communities.
On paper, that idea doesn’t sound too bad; many animated and live-action features have found success with a similar premise. However, where some of these films fill their stories with tons of heart, Trolls would rather populate its script with jokes. Even in moments of seriousness and heart, the writers seem to want to ruin the tension with a joke (there’s literally a Troll that poops glitter. Yep). Though the second and third acts suffer from this problem a little less – indeed, the stakes are palpable by the time the movie finishes – it makes the first act unbearable to watch; in fact, I found myself identifying with Branch and his disdain for the Trolls’ happy ways.
The supporting cast of this movie does little beyond spouting many of the aforementioned jokes. In fact, aside from the film’s two leads and a Bergen named Bridget (an almost unrecognizable Zooey Deschanel), they are all purely one-dimensional characters that only serve to make immature jokes for the kids at home and to get names on the movie poster that will make adults interested in seeing it. I think that some of the major script problems could have been solved if Poppy’s core group of friends was cut in half.
That being said, the relationship between the film’s two leads is very well-developed. Poppy and Branch don’t like each other at the start, but there is always a sense that there is something beneath the surface fueling that dislike. Their progression feels natural throughout the film, and it made the conclusion all the more satisfying to see.
Where the film lacks in story and characters, it REALLY picks up in the animation. I can’t remember the last time that I saw a film with such a bright color palette, and I think that it suited the Trolls’ peppy nature. The overall look does not resemble the realistic styles of previous Dreamworks films including Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon, being laden with various textures that resemble clay and felt, but I think in this case it didn’t need to be. Heck, when you’re dealing with a group of colorful fantastical beings, they deserve a world that suits them.
The character animation is well-done too, especially with the re-design of the Trolls from the original doll (although there is a small nod to it toward the beginning). I liked that the Trolls embodied such a wide variety of sizes, shapes, textures, and hair—and the hair was done beautifully. On the flip side, the gross and ugly design of the Bergens is a fantastic antithesis to the magical and happy creatures. Its Annie nominations for production and character design were well-deserved.
As the film is a musical, I will briefly touch on the songs included here, which are a mix of covers and originals produced by Timberlake. They are certainly a mixed bag in terms of quality: brief snippets of “Hello” by Lionel Richie and “Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkle woven in without context, while “True Colors,” originally sung by Cyndi Lauper, provides one of the most heartfelt moments. As for the originals, the only one that stands out is, of course, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, which became a pop radio hit months before the movie hit theaters. And, well, I’m still listening to it, so I’ll give the movie that.
Overall, while the powers-that-be deemed this movie successful enough to warrant a sequel (arriving in 2020), I think I may have been a little too kind to the film in my initial review of Trolls. Unique animation, two engaging leads, and a couple of good musical moments aren’t enough to save this film from mediocrity. With a little trimming of unneeded jokes uttered by baseless supporting characters, I think this film could have aged a bit better.
But hey, at least there’ll be tons of Trolls merchandise to gobble up, right?
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden