Because of the truly strange and incomprehensible moment we’re all battling through, the only major new release in the month of April 2020 is Trolls World Tour. It’s a weird sentence to type, just as Trolls World Tour is a weird film to watch. This sequel to the 2016 DreamWorks Animation film, based on the colorful dolls that have survived popular culture the way cockroaches survive a nuclear apocalypse, could be worse. Slap that pull-quote on the poster, Universal/DreamWorks. That’s the best praise I can hand out to a movie whose predecessor was visually unpleasant and creatively bankrupt. Trolls World Tour is neither as garish to watch nor as troubling to ponder. But to call this a good movie in the midst of a pandemic is to dub a drop of water in a desert an oasis.
If you haven’t seen the first Trolls, consider yourself lucky. What you need to know to prepare yourself for the new film is this: Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) is the new Queen of her Troll clan, with her best friend Branch (Justin Timberlake) by her side, although he’d like to be more than her best friend. In the new film, Poppy and Branch are shocked to learn that they are not alone, and there are five other Troll clans, all themed to different musical genres, from funk to techno. Poppy’s clan is, as her name implies, all about pop music. She and the other Trolls face a threat from another clan defined by their love of hard rock. Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) wants to unite the Trolls by making them all hard-rock Trolls, and it’s up to Poppy to stop this rock domination.
As I sat through the film the morning it became available on demand, or as the PR language says “home-on-demand”, I kept wondering what the point of Trolls World Tour even is. The first Trolls was a noxious inverse of Inside Out, in which a perpetually happy character and a perpetually sad character are paired with each other, and in the end, the sad character learns that they should be a little happier than they used to be. (You may recall that this is not how Inside Out concludes.) The sequel leaves aside any serious discussion of emotion, instead presenting the six food groups of music, as it were, with little interest in any true demarcations of each musical subgenre. (I’m not a musical expert, yet the way the film presents genres like country and classical are, putting it lightly, very reductive. And in one section, we hear MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” used as an example of pop music, which feels…inaccurate, or at least incomplete.)
There are hints of a more interesting film in Trolls World Tour, cropping up mostly in the second half as Poppy learns that pop music has a long history of cultural appropriation. But even in those flashes of complexity, this film leaves you wanting. “Ah,” you may be thinking, “But this is a movie about trolls. Who cares about complexity? Who’s looking for anything thoughtful in a movie like this?” On one hand, I get it. I’m the father of a five-year old who has been salivating over the prospect of watching this movie at home for days. (He enjoyed the movie, in case you’re curious.) But it’s not wrong to want more from family entertainment than just bright colors and remixed pop songs.
Trolls World Tour has a couple charms, though they’re largely courtesy of supporting voice actors. Comedian Ron Funches, who also appeared in the first film, gets a bit more to do here and his boisterous voice is as delightful in animation as it is in his stand-up. And Sam Rockwell, as a drawling Country Troll, is fun in the way that Sam Rockwell is almost always fun. Kendrick and Timberlake are…fine, as they were in the first film. What holds Trolls World Tour back is what holds back so many films from DreamWorks Animation: they thrive on pop-culture references, loud humor, and little else.
Originally, of course, Trolls World Tour was going to play in theaters, and not just as a 48-hour VOD rental. Either way, the movie opens with a special title card for DreamWorks, marking its 25th anniversary. Consider how far DreamWorks Animation has come. One of their earliest titles, fitting considering the Passover holiday, is The Prince of Egypt, a mostly hand-drawn animated adaptation of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. It’s not an entirely successful film, but it’s visually striking, fairly intelligent, and a committed attempt to make the Exodus story understandable but not dumbed-down for children. Of course, a couple years later, Shrek arrived and DreamWorks became the studio the ogre built. There was a time when DreamWorks was willing to take a creative chance on stories for the whole family. Now, as they serve as the second-fiddle animation studio at Universal Pictures, walking behind Gru and the Minions at Illumination Entertainment, DreamWorks – and films like Trolls World Tour – shows its age in the worst ways.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10