Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
The original Trolls (2016), a computer animated jukebox musical based on the plastic dolls which were popular in the latter half of the 20th Century, came and went without much fanfare. Something of a cheap cash-in that offered co-star Justin Timberlake a chance at his own “Happy” and a continued, though perplexing, Hollywood fascination with co-star Anna Kendrick’s singing voice. For parents and babysitters everywhere, however, 2016 was just the beginning.
As with all entertainment products aimed at children which inevitably find themselves played incessantly at home and on the go, parents are faced with two options: Try to find some glimmer of quality within the banal pablum, or madness. So naturally Trolls, with its often dark humor, reasonably nostalgic set list (a major through-line is “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire), and genuinely complex but positive messaging managed to rise to the top. One of the more tolerable of the decade’s offerings for viewers of a certain age.
You may find yourself wondering what I, dear reader, am doing discussing Trolls and its sequel when I lack any children or younger relatives to entertain. Long story short, I heard about it on a podcast. Trolls made plenty of money and sold plenty of merchandise. It was of course green-lit for a sequel. Animators chugged away at computers and actors fed lines and lyrics in recording booths. Everything went according to plan. And then lots of people started getting sick.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the fact that Trolls World Tour is the first major film release affected by the 2019 novel human coronavirus outbreak. The sequel to Trolls is an unlikely candidate for this sort of attention. It was never going to be a uniquely lucrative or well-received film. It was just supposed to be a safe bet for a couple of hours. With movie theaters shutting down and quarantines in effect Dreamworks elected to release the film online to coincide with its supposed theatrical run. As of Friday, April 10th, viewers can rent the film from various services and view it from the comfort of their own homes.
The last time this happened was 2014’s The Interview which was released on VOD following the calamitous publication of internal emails from Sony Pictures. Talks of disruption and digital revolutions and Bitcoin and censorship filled the air. But The Interview failed to garner much attention from critics or audiences and ultimately business as usual continued. Now, with business as usual apparently postponed indefinitely, the future of cinema and movie theaters has once again become a concern. But what about the actual movie?
The best part of Trolls World Tour is that it ditches the Bergens from the previous film. Monstrous but miserable creatures who eat Trolls in order to feel happiness. The Bergens were clearly a metaphor for something, chemical dependency perhaps, but they were hideous to look at and their absence is welcome. Instead the film presents us with the fantasy epic trope of multiple kingdoms of the diminutive singing Trolls. Each kingdom is devoted to its own musical genre. The ones mentioned are Classical, Hard Rock, Country, Funk, Techno, and Pop. Each genre of music has its own magical string which is responsible for creating and maintaining the power of music. Where Trolls saw the Trolls teaching the Bergens that happiness is something we need to draw out from inside ourselves and not steal from others (along with routine messaging about acceptance) Trolls World Tour positions itself as a film about diversity. Which, frankly, is something children’s films have been struggling with lately.
In the film the Hard Rock Trolls, led by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) enact a plan to kidnap the members of the other Troll kingdoms, steal their strings, and convert every Troll into a Hard Rock Zombie in order to bring an end to all disunity among Trolls. Poppy (Anna Kendrick), Queen of the Pop Trolls and Branch (Justine Timberlake) return from the first film as Queen Barb’s rivals and attempt instead to unite all of the Trolls together in musical harmony. Things go south immediately for Queen Poppy when she discovers that the differences between Trolls from different kingdoms ran deeper than she expected, but also when she is told that Pop Trolls were responsible for causing the original splitting of the Trolls by hogging all of the music.
As a tangent, this twist seemed pretty unnecessary. The scene is ultimately meant to inform Poppy that she is well-intentioned but mistaken. Her insistence that Trolls should overlook their differences in order to get along and unite against Barb is met with a rap explaining the original betrayal of the Pop Trolls and a rejoinder from King Quincy (George Clinton) stating “to deny our differences is to deny the truth of who we really are”. There’s a lot of odd-coding in this scene that took me by surprise. First is the argument that “history is written by the winners” which the Funk trolls use to contradict the Pop Trolls version of events which merely stated that the trolls inevitably grew disharmonious when they each became attached to their own style of music and disdainful of others. Second was the long and surprisingly condescending hip-hop track in which the Pop Trolls are accused of historical plagiarism and erasure. It struck me as odd because I can’t think of a popular genre of music which has relied more heavily on sampling than hip-hop. The notion that the Pop Trolls are “winners” in some imperialist culture war is also bizarre considering the song explaining this states the Pop Trolls were defeated when the other Trolls banded together and stole away with their 5 strings leaving the Pop Trolls to themselves. That the Pop Trolls have seemingly lived in fear and isolation ever since. And that the previous film established the Pop Trolls were literally cooked and eaten for generations by hideous giants called Bergens.
The issues raised by the Pop Trolls are so important to the discourse on diversity and acceptance and bigotry and assimilation. The way they are presented, however, felt bizarrely tone-deaf. The horrified face of your beloved protagonist holding back tears of despair is not the image you want associated with the ideas of a more inclusive, open-minded, and historically informed form of diversity. The perfunctory twist of this scene, though presumably well-intentioned lip-service to very important ideas, doesn’t inform the film’s resolution and so the ideas it addresses are ultimately abandoned.
As a man of eclectic tastes when it comes to music, the idea of multiple musical kingdoms was very appealing to me. Introducing children to catchy songs from various genres is a great idea. One of the best things about the preceding film is that it made “September” a hit for a bunch of brats who have never heard of Disco. The concept of this film had me looking forward to hearing some essentials from each genre and some of the big crossover hits that combine and transcend several genres. Of course in retrospect that’s quite an expensive proposition. So instead the film delivers more original songs than its predecessor and what well-known songs do appear in the film are either heavily truncated, have new lyrics to fit the film, or both.
I had my own reasons for watching Trolls World Tour and I don’t regret watching the film. It’s colorful and upbeat, and still full of a couple weirdly dark running gags. What gives me the most hope is it has genuinely incredible messages laid out in plain English like the line from King Quincy quoted earlier, and another line from Poppy’s father (Walt Dohrn) towards the end “You weren’t naive about this world. You were brave enough to believe things can change.” I don’t know what the legacy of this film will be. Maybe it’ll drive a whole new group of parents insane. Maybe it will change the way movies are released as we know it. And maybe it will come and go. If you do put it on for yourself or your kids, just be sure you don’t accidentally pick Troll 2 (1990) instead.