Trolls (2016)

We're flyin' up, no ceiling, when we in our zone

Trolls represents the start of a new era for DreamWorks Animation. It’s a good era, but I don’t think you’d call it an “imperial phase”: The output has been far too scattershot to represent a true reign. The critical, financial, and fan-buzz feedback has been inconsistent. Plus, labeling anything related to The Boss Baby as “imperial” just feels wrong.

I’d instead label it something like the “fuck it, we ball” era for DreamWorks. It’s kinda the opposite of an “imperial phase”: Whereas Pixar’s peak, the last real “imperial phase” of an animation studio, was defined by earnest and emotionally deep stories, the films’ animation improvements coming from technology allowing more photorealism, which was then leveraged with tremendous direction and impeccable writing, the post-Trolls DreamWorks era relies instead on aggressive stylization and artificiality, the premises and scripts unabashedly gag-first and story-second, the stories kid-focused and ignorant of the “good taste” of grown-ups. Put another way, when DreamWorks’ creative team faced down a reputation as the also-ran of American CGI and a pipeline of questionable movie loglines, what was their response? “Fuck it, we ball.”

(When you see the rating below, know that I was right on the line between two marks and opted for the higher one mainly for my appreciation of its go-big-or-go-home, anti-sterile mindset which has since infected all of DreamWorks’ output.)

I have to imagine that Trolls was at one point pitched as a standard sort of animated musical with original Broadway-style songs, a reasonable pace of musical numbers and visual gags, and a run-of-the-mill adventure texture to the whole production. It was surely boardroom-invented as a toy-shilling vehicle brand revival of Good Luck Troll dolls. There is, in fact, one vestige of that version of the movie: the perfectly decent “Get Back Up Again” showtune, which would easily plug into a dozen other movies.

What Trolls does instead is take the infamous “dance party” of DreamWorks movies and turn it into an entire ethos: Almost every number is a sugary feel-good bit of pop whimsy, even and especially the ones that advance the plot. The music is almost entirely covers and/or radio pop. Trolls has a nonstop giddiness in spirit exemplified by the excessively cheerful protagonist Poppy (Anna Kendrick), who is a DreamWorks dance party personified. The pacing and editing of musical sequences is like a music video: quick images chopped up and sewn together to maximize dopamine release, each shot a splash of pop art. Even a little bit trippy.

It’s infectious, okay? But it’s not something that’s ever going to get widespread recognition or be to all tastes. I don’t blame someone for hating Trolls, but I think it’s sad if you do. At least it’s not half-assed and pandering. It’s the biggest and boldest version of itself: Intense audiovisual joy stimulation beamed directly to your retinas. You’re not going to walk away bored. It’s the sensory equivalent to eating a bag of Skittles in one sitting. For 82 minutes plus credits, you’re living in a six-year-old girl’s imagination.

This zealous approach to filmmaking wouldn’t work if the animation technique wasn’t sophisticated and well-executed, and this is where Trolls particularly shines. Directors Mike Mitchell (of Lego Movie 2 and Shrek 4, plus the upcoming Kung Fu Panda 4) and Walt Dohrn (steward of the Trolls series) and their team bring the movie to life. The visual design of this film is outstanding. The colors are vivid and fully-saturated (the “dark night of the soul” portion of the story is literally represented with characters being drained of their hues into dull grays against a black backdrop). The virtual camera flies and spins in adventurous ways, blasting the film with kinetic energy. The lighting is tinted and reality-bending. Even the non-musical animation segments have a lot of thought and energy put into them: the Troll-eating Bergens are often rendered like horror monsters or kaiju titans.

The character designs are not exactly attractive, but they are memorable in their ugliness. The Trolls have a wacky assortment of bizarre shapes, sizes, and colors. A few would pass as freaks at a PT Barnum circus. The Bergens, meanwhile, are almost too baroquely designed, with squashed features that are viscerally off-putting.

Perhaps most striking of all is the texturing: the characters are arts and crafts projects come to life. The Troll hair is silky and tactile; the skin wonderfully fuzzy as if you’re looking at a piece of bending and shifting felt. It’s heavily inspired by stop-motion, but never feels too physically real the way great examples of that medium do. In lieu of reality is intense stylization, stretching and proportion-shifting into cartoonishness.

As for the story and screenplay… well, even DreamWorks’ great masterpiece How to Train Your Dragon has a script that’s occasionally hit-or-miss. This holds for Trolls, too. It’s the weakest part of this movie, with its sense of humor sometimes leaning so far into childishness that it spoils the over-the-top comic energy the film carries visually.

But the writing is not aggressively bad; just boilerplate and intermittently unfunny (though often quite funny). The narrative is a smidge lumpy and episodic. There are bones of a real story here, and one that typically works well, something you can’t say for some of the other films in DreamWorks’ “fuck it, we ball” era. Multiple characters undergo significant and coherent arcs. A few of those arcs are even convincing.

A high-level outline of the quest: In a prologue, a group of Trolls escape the Bergens’ ritualistic devouring of their species and form a new colony. Years later, the princess Poppy (Kendrick) remembers nothing of the dark days, and is all sunshine and hugs and poptimism. She throws a birthday party so hoppin’ that it attracts the attention of a faraway Bergen chef named, uh, Chef (Christine Baranski). Chef then finds the colony and captures a bunch of trolls for a feast for the new Bergen king, Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Poppy recruits Branch (Justin Timberlake) who is her exact opposite: cynical, introverted, paranoid, and music-hating. They team up to rescue the captured Trolls. Along they way they befriend the frumpy servant Bergen named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) who ends up in a Cinderella story with Bergen King Gristle.

It’s not the most elegant story, but the writing puts in the basic storytelling legwork of setting up stuff like “stakes” and “character dynamics,” which the sequels don’t even bother with. Poppy and Branch make compelling protagonists, as they both avoid the kids movie pitfall of being generic ciphers — both are well-drawn and distinct.

Unfortunately, the story really lurches in its second half, which is markedly less fun than the more sugary first half. Once Poppy and Branch find Bergen Town to rescue their peers, Bridget suddenly becomes the protagonist for 20 minutes, and the story spins its wheels until the rescue climax.

There’s one more wrinkle to the story that I quite liked, and that is that it’s structured like a romantic comedy for Branch and Poppy. Indeed, the combination of clearly-defined characters with dramatically opposed worldviews, expressive character animation, and very strong voice work from Kendrick and Timberlake give the characters a real sense of sparks and chemistry, something I’ve rarely felt in animated cinema. The “True Colors” scene is downright touching in a way DreamWorks movies rarely ever have been. It’s a terrific payoff with lovely and spare use of sound and color.

But, again, the story and the writing are not really why we’re here. It’s the dance party ethos, the lovely animation technique, the sugar rush. Perhaps no moment better captures the all-out mindset of the film than an early gag in which a shiny silver troll literally farts glitter to brighten up some art. If that’s not DreamWorks staring down its corporate toy-selling mandate and saying “fuck it, we ball,” I don’t know what is.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

Follow Dan on Letterboxd or Twitter. Join the Discord for updates and discussion.

2 replies on “Trolls (2016)”

How could I hate this film? It gave us ‘Can’t stop the feeling’ one of my very favourite songs.

Shame? Shame is for COWARDS too weak to enjoy Pure Sunshine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *