Well, I said this before in a past installment of my column Animation Analysis, but I must repeat it here with greater sincerity: I owe DreamWorks Animation an apology. All of the previous flak I’ve given Trolls, I would like to redirect to their marketing team for making me think this was going to be a stinker of a film. Seriously though, do some reorganizing in that department. The cringeworthy teaser gave us twerking trolls; the film itself actually turned out far better than I dared to hope. To be sure, it has its share of flaws, but overall DreamWorks’ Trolls, directed by Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell, actually delivers a good time.
As I began to pick this movie apart, I delved into the filmography of the directors and found two different stories. Walt Dohrn used to write on the show SpongeBob SquarePants, before its infamous decline. He wrote some of the most well-remembered episodes such as “Frankendoodle” and “Procrastination,”, and he also worked on Dexter’s Laboratory. Mike Mitchell, on the other hand, sports a resume that includes Shrek Forever After and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. The disparate experience can be felt in a bit of a duality within the movie. There are some extremely clever gags, and some groan-worthy ones.
The film begins in a typical “open the storybook” fashion, and we’re presented with two races: the titular and tiny Trolls, who are creatures of unbridled happiness, and the larger Bergens, who do not know how to be happy. The Bergens believe the only way to achieve happiness is to eat a Troll, and so they keep them in their town as a food supply. Eventually the Trolls escape, and form a new home in the middle of a remote forest. Fast forward twenty years, and we’re introduced to our two main characters. Anna Kendrick voices Poppy, the happiest of the happy-go-lucky Trolls, and as princess she is dedicated to observing hourly hug times and promoting songs and dances as much as possible. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum is Branch, voiced by Justin Timberlake, a crazy (even by his own description) doomsday prepper constantly on alert for approaching Bergens. When a Bergen finally manages to track down the Trolls and kidnap them, it’s up to these two to save their captured fellows.
The most important part of any movie is the writing; without a good screenplay, nothing else can move forward. So how does Trolls fare? I’d rule above average… but not necessarily great. The plotline follows a familiar beat, and within five minutes of the film’s opening I could predict a lot of the major plot points. That being said, the story is certainly executed competently. In fact, there were a couple bits that did surprise me! Characters develop over the movie, both on the Trolls’ and the Bergens’ sides. Some of the arcs are a little rushed, and some of the arcs feel a bit erratic, but in the end a goal is defined and reached. Honestly though, I’d find it a little easier to root for some of the characters if they acted a little more sensibly. When Poppy finds her friends, they immediately cheer and shout and sing with a Bergen sleeping in the same room. Even after Branch shushes them, they continue their celebration only slightly more quietly. These friends have few distinct personalities, and can essentially be considered a collective character named “Friends”. I can name one notable exception, but I don’t want to describe it too much; I’ll just say that there is a pleasant surprise among them. Ultimately, the narrative has rough edges but carries itself solidly enough. It also carries a message about finding happiness inside yourself, and while it could have been delivered a little better, it still comes across clearly.
The humor is… a little more mixed. Some of the jokes were fantastic, and several laughs were prompted out of me. Other gags had me rolling my eyes; I’m sure we all could have gone without the glitter farts. There are times also where the movie is so desperate to be funny that the timing goes awry. About two-thirds of the way in, we get a serious dramatic revelation from one of the characters about their past. The emotion of the moment gets almost immediately squashed though by other characters cutting in with quips. Drama needs room to breathe, and Trolls doesn’t always accommodate that. For the majority of the time though, the humor lands on target, and the good gags do outweigh the bad.
Trolls touts itself as a musical, and the centerpiece of its soundtrack is Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” I can claim it as the centerpiece with absolute certainty because I’ve heard it on the radio every time I’ve stepped into a restaurant or store since May. In a way, Timberlake’s single has been a great marketing ploy, because even when I was dreading this film, the little earworm burrowed its way into my memory. As for the rest of the soundtrack it is — yet again — mixed. Some of the songs are generic, or feel like an effort to appeal to millennials, or simply have poor writing. However, some of the covers are well-placed; Kendrick’s rendition of “The Sound of Silence” was a lot of fun. The song “Hair Up” plays off the familiar tune of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, imbuing it with a modern pop feeling. In a way, it felt like the music improved over the course of the movie. I don’t know if I simply got used to it, or if by then I had been won over, but my ears definitely enjoyed the second half a bit more.
Trolls’ strongest point lies in its visuals. It employs a unique style that gives it what I can only describe as a craftshop feel. There are two distinct worlds: one is the forest that the Trolls escape into. Everything is brightly colored and soft-looking, even the deadly predators. Think of it as if a Nick Jr. cartoon got a multi-million dollar budget. By contrast, the Bergens’ town looks dreary, but not without a sense of whimsy in itself. In a way it feels similar to Laika’s Boxtrolls (hmmm, connection in those names?). The disparate visual styles accentuate the storytelling. In the classic hero’s journey, there’s a distinction between the safe home and the perilous other world. Trolls utilizes its visuals to underline that very distinction. In the Trolls’ forest, even Branch’s maximum-security bunker uses metal that looks like it’s made out of felt. On the contrary, the Bergens use knives and instruments that have the actual sheen of steel. The audience gets the feeling that these giants are more dangerous than the snakes and spiders and other beasts that plagued Poppy and Branch on their way out of the forest; it reminds us that these are the big bads. Besides this storytelling analysis, the direction keeps us engaged, and it’s just plain fun to look at.
Trolls has serious flaws, that cannot be denied. But at the same time it has strong virtues as well. It has a plot that’s more well-put-together than not, humor that’s more funny than unfunny, and music that’s more catchy than groan-worthy. I’m not going to say “WATCH IT RIGHT NOW!”, but I won’t tell you to avoid it like the plague either. In the end it is a pleasant movie. I actually felt buoyed up a bit afterwards, and I can never trash a film that gave me that feeling. If you have kids, take them to see it. If you want to have a silly good time, give it a try. Ultimately, while I won’t put these Trolls on a pedestal, I’m not going to put them on a dinner plate either.
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected].