As far as animated films go, 2016 has offered a wild assortment of big-screen releases, ranging from exceptional (Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings) to downright awful (Ratchet & Clank). Trolls – the latest effort from Dreamworks Animation – sadly fits somewhere into the latter category, a studio product that feels like it was built in a focus group rather than a creative team with an imaginative story worth telling. Perhaps its basis on the popular line of Troll dolls should be a red flag.
The film follows Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and reluctant ally Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) as they set off on a mission to rescue a group of kidnapped Trolls from the monstrous Bergens, ogre-like creatures who eat their kind on a holiday called “Trollstice” in order to achieve happiness. By now, everyone has heard Timberlake’s hit single “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and for those viewers who are hyped to hear the pop singer and Pitch Perfect star Kendrick belt out more familiar tunes, Trolls may be the film you’ve been waiting for, if only for the soundtrack.
Directed by Walt Dohrn (Spongebob Squarepants) and Mike Mitchell (Shrek Forever After), Trolls feels like the filmmakers put some of the most popular family entertainment of the past into a blender and hoped for the best. The hidden village the Trolls live in feels ripped right out of the Smurfs franchise, the Bergen/Troll dynamic is strikingly Fraggle Rock and the fairy tale opener frames the film like it’s Dreamworks’ latest effort to ape the success of Shrek.
Even Timberlake and John Cleese, who previously played a reluctant hero and ailing king in Shrek the Third, respectively, essentially serve similar functions here. Let’s not forget the tired Cinderella riff or that there’s so much Dr. Seuss influence at play here that Jeffrey Tambor – who played the Mayor of Whoville in Ron Howard’s 2000 Grinch film – voices the king of the Trolls. No one lost any sleep coming up with the casting for Trolls, we can assure you.
What the film steals most from is the pop music catalog. Ever since Moulin Rouge really popularized the concept of the “jukebox musical,” everything from Rock of Ages to Glee has opted to simply cover recognizable tunes rather than create anything new. Since Trolls are depicted as “sing and dance and hug creatures,” they frequently and randomly break out into uninspired song selections like Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello.”
While Kendrick, Timberlake and Zooey Deschanel in particular have the pipes to pull off the many musical performances in Trolls, the fact that the music is as derivative as the story only underscores the lack of ideas involved in the entire production. The film’s version of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” serves as perhaps the only moment when a cover actually manages to emotionally resonate with the story at hand.
Moreover, Trolls doesn’t make the slightest bit of effort to break the unfortunate stigma that animated films are pandering to the widest audience possible. Much like this year’s The Angry Birds Movie, the film is loud and obnoxious throughout, following characters that fart out glitter, poop cupcakes and speak in autotune (yes, really). Its direction is so intent on not losing anyone’s attention that it becomes exhausting to watch and offers too little heart for audiences to care about the characters. What’s there feels so manufactured that it falls remarkably flat, rendering what are supposed to be emotional revelations laughable instead.
Unlike films like The Lego Movie, Trolls has little interest in sending a deeper message. The movie offers one, but its predictable script doesn’t do enough to justify what it thinks it’s trying to say. In fact, the only truly clever moment comes early on when the Troll dolls themselves make a brief appearance.
As ironic as it is to hear Timberlake voicing a curmudgeonly Troll who constantly professes he doesn’t sing, most audiences may be better off avoiding Trolls and staying in (might we suggest Laika’s The Boxtrolls, now streaming on Netflix, as a better alternative?). Very small children and moviegoers desperate to see a subpar animated Pitch Perfect sequel should enjoy the film, but there’s nothing in here that makes it worthwhile for mainstream audiences otherwise.
A product of the iPod generation, Trolls‘ paint-by-numbers story, incredibly on-the-nose casting and insipid attempt at humor add up to a somewhat embarrassing effort from the studio behind the How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda series. Trolls marks Dreamworks’ first full-on musical since The Prince of Egypt in 1998, and if this is any indication of the studio’s approach to the genre, it may be best they stay away in the future.
Based on the popular toy line, Trolls bears all the earmarks of a blatant cash-in on a recognizable property, with little imagination to speak of and predictable creative choices from beginning to end.