Trolls World Tour and all the images you see in this review are owned by DreamWorks and Universal Pictures
Directed by David SF Wilson
I know I’m a week late on this, but even with the convince of being able to watch this one at home (and let’s be frank here, I’m not spending THAT much more money than I would at the theater), I just couldn’t be asked when it actually came out and frankly I had better things to do like play that Final Fantasy VII remake than watch a sequel to an animated film I didn’t like all that much. But even if we do have the perfect excuse to sit around and do nothing as it is now the socially conscionable thing to do, I still need to maintain SOME sort of routine to not go stir crazy in here, so fine. Let’s buckle down and watch yet another toy commercial dance around for an hour and a half while playing all the songs your parents used to like! Does it manage to somehow surpass the low expectations that its predecessor had set, or are we in for a LONG bout of isolation if this is the bets that studios can give us in these tumultuous times? Let’s find out!!
Following the events of the first film, Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is living out her fantabulous troll life singing songs, performing dance numbers, and being worshiped by her beloved subjects. Her best friend Branch (Justin Timberlake) seems a bit more uneasy about the idyllic life but he puts up with it in the hope getting out of the friend zone (ugh…) to either spend the rest of his life with the troll he loves or this is some elaborate power play to become KING OF THE TROLLS! Of course it’s not the latter (that would be far too interesting), but instead the conflict ends up being a group of ROCK TROLLS led by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) who is traveling across the land attacking similarly music-themed tribes to steal their magical music strings that the former King Peppy (Walt Dohrn) failed to clue Poppy in about during her Queen initiation. Apparently each tribe of musical trolls (the trolls we know are known as the Pop trolls) has a magical string that signifies their music, and does… something. I’m not exactly sure what, but if Barb gets all six of them, puts them on her super awesome guitar, and plays some tasty licks with them, it’ll turn all the trolls into Rock trolls which will unify the troll kingdoms which will accomplish… something. In any case, Poppy wants to try and negotiate with Barb to see if they can unify peacefully, but it becomes clear that she’s more about taking everything over than working together, and so she and Branch along with Biggie (James Corden) have to travel the land and try to get the other tribes to work together to stop Barb from fulfilling her dastardly destiny. Will Poppy be able to convince any of the other tribes that working together is better than falling apart? Is there more to the history of the strings and these tribes than Poppy knows, and will that play a key role in defining the course of this current crisis? Do you think Justin Timberlake ever wonders why he’s not in better movies or has he just resigned himself to mid-level animated shlock?
I never thought I would have to describe a Trolls movie as pretentious, but I’ll be darned if that’s not the movie we have before us. I kind of feel extra bitter about it too; like, I was expecting this to at least be AWARE that it was Dreamworks Pablum meant to distract and numb with familiarity! Instead, I have to spend half this review explaining the deep ideas about music and cultural appropriation that it THINKS it’s about but does such a sloppy job covering. I guess I can’t fault them for at least TRYING to come up with a reason for this movie to exist other than to blast a bunch of familiar tunes from Best Of The Decade lists, but there’s no follow-through on its greater themes which only exacerbates the utter shallowness of everything else on display. I barely remember the first film but I remember having a deep dislike for it all the way through, and to this film’s credit it’s at least better than that. The haphazard nature of it means that you can find isolated bubbles of interesting ideas intermingling with everything else, but by throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks instead of trying to narrow it down first, all that we’re left with is a disorganized mess that no one seemed particularly interested in cleaning up before dropping it in on VOD.
The biggest problem with this movie is that it’s shallow; shallow characters, shallow humor, shallow taste in music. Very little in this movie feels like it was thought all the way through, and for the most part it feels like at we’ve got at least four filmmakers vying for screen time and on completely different pages as to what this film needed to be. There’s a subplot about the four-legged troll Cooper from the last movie discovering he’s of a different tribe, but he’s given little screen time and even less dialogue for what turns out to be a pretty important part of the movie; not even a song of his own to explain the angst he feels at being different from everyone else and his need to find others like him! There’s insinuation throughout the movie of Barb the Rock Queen having a deeper pathos, but whether it’s daddy issues or the loneliness of being royalty, it’s never addressed to any degree to be satisfying. Even Poppy and Branch, our two returning protagonists, seem to be guided by the plot rather than the ones affecting it in any way; bouncing back and forth from one location to another without any rhyme, reason, or even a coherent goal. The way they depict genres of music might be the worst part, and this is particularly galling once we get to the one GOOD thing about the movie. I watched this movie with my girlfriend and she had a brilliant observation; that despite there being distinct Pop Tribe (the one Poppy and Branch are from), the other genres are only represented by the versions that were biggest on the pop charts. The Rock trolls are perhaps the most egregious affecting an aesthetic somewhere between Brütal Legend and Rock of Ages. To them, rock and roll means seventies and eighties rock; no grunge, alternative, Nu Metal, even The Beatles wouldn’t fit into this narrow view of what Rock and Roll is (and yes, that means no Wonderwall). The other genres don’t fare much better with Country being full of cowboy tropes and redneck jokes, Pop doing a lot of corny remixes of overused tracks, and Classical not even bothering to show up outside of a blink and you miss it scene. The only one that comes off pretty decently are the Funk trolls which brings us to the best part of the movie and why I’m particularly annoyed with everything else.
[TROLLS2CD3 – “DANG-GUM-DOODLY-BUR-HOWDY!” “What?” “He says, ATTACK!!”]
Okay, so remember that subplot I mentioned earlier about Cooper finding his home? The only reason I brought it up is because the culmination of that plot is the land of Funk trolls is a sequence that does two things better than anything else in the movie. One, it feels more attuned to the spirit of the genre (it’s inspirations are still entirely retro but the aesthetic is still interestingly realized), and two it drops a lot of truth bombs that the movie desperately wants you to be impressed with. A lot of genres being appropriated by pop stars has always been an issue (whatever talents he had, Elvis got famous for being a white guy playing black music), and so Poppy’s quest to reunite the tribes of music is evocative of the whole I DON’T SEE COLOR mentality that causes the marginalized to be pushed to the side while everyone else takes what they’ve done for themselves. This was such a real moment in a movie of utter gumdrop candy-coated nonsense that it took me a while to even realize what it was they were saying, and it feels like it’s TRYING to come from a place of authenticity; particularly with Mary J Blige and George Clinton being the leaders of this tribe as well as a solid song from Anderson Paak explaining this in rap. Okay, so they went through the trouble of telling us what the problem is, so how do they try to resolve that at the end of the movie? The answer is… MAGIC. With the power of LOVE, FRIENDSHIP, and BEATS, the issue is ultimately swept aside with none of the characters having to do any hard work or make genuine sacrifices to correct the mistakes of the past. Say what you will about Disney movies like Thor: Ragnarok, at least they stuck to their guns with the moral of the story. Heck, even Frozen 2 with its hand waive ALL IS WELL copout ending at least had one character make a REALLY difficult choice to set things right. Institutional racism, sexism, what have you, is not something that can be hand waved away with sparkly lights and a sing-a-long, and while it normally wouldn’t be fair to hold a movie aimed at children to solve all of humanity’s problems; well the movie was the one that brought it up. It doesn’t get points if it’s not willing to put in the legwork.
[TROLLS2CD4 – “I may have sold my soul giving Gerardo one of my songs, but I will not let you gentrify our music!” “But…” “NO BUTS!”]
The only other thing worth noting here is the animation which just like the first one has a very strong creative verve behind it that at least sets it somewhat apart from other family films. It’s a bit dulled somewhat considering just how much they over-rely on well-known pop chart staples for cheap applause, but I guess you could say that even GOOD movies like Sing can fall into that trap. Still, there are a few moments that captured the imaginative world these creatures take place in; my personal favorite being the Smooth Jazz troll who takes them to a beautiful world that is one half beautiful prog-rock album covers and half Tim & Eric fever dream. It’s more of an aside than anything else (Dora the Explore did something similar and WAY better), but I’ll take the good where I can get it here.
[TROLLS2CD5 – That hair is smoother than any jazz!]
Maybe I’m being too harsh on this movie and having it be my glorious return to film reviewing put it in an unfair position, but I can’t say that I have a lot of good feelings about this movie after seeing it. MAYBE there are a few scenes here and there worth a rewatch and I’d definitely like to see this animation team tackles something with a bit more meat on its bones and ideas in its head, but it’s hard to recommend it beyond that. I certainly wouldn’t pay to rent it right now, but when it gets to its ACTUAL home release price a few months down the line… I don’t know, it’ll kill an hour and a half I guess but by then we’re going to be MASTERS of finding ways to fill our time and I think there’ll be a lot better alternatives to this. Shoot, you can probably find half these songs in Rock Band and the other half in Just Dance, and those have pretty decent visuals to boot! Maybe the next Troll movie can come with a karaoke mic or be a VR thing because otherwise I don’t see this franchise doing much more than stagnate to diminishing returns.
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