If a comprehensive history of DreamWorks Animation is ever written, the 2016 semi-musical Trolls may figure into it as a pivotal text, despite its ignominious toy-shelf origins and not exactly record-breaking box office (and now a sequel that has been forced to bypass most theaters entirely due to a pandemic). The studio has cranked out dozens of feature films, but the Trolls series works hard to turn various DreamWorks tropes, touchstones, and clichés into a unified aesthetic. In Trolls and the new Trolls World Tour, celebrity voices, high energy levels, nonsensical catchphrases, cross-promotional branding, cover-heavy soundtracks, and overuse of voice-over narration are all jacked up to 11, creating what are essentially marathon-length dance party endings. Yet somehow, this shamelessness gives the whole enterprise a kind of deranged honor.
Following the events of the first Trolls, ex-princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) has ascended to the throne and become queen of the trolls, attempting to maintain her kingdom’s astronomical levels of glittery joy. When she receives a sneaky invitation from Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) attempting to lure her into a trap, she finds out—through one of many narrated storybook flashbacks—that the world contains other troll kingdoms, sorted by magical guitar strings, each tied to a different genre. Barb is leading the Hard Rock Trolls on a mission to collect all the strings and stamp out other music, like country, techno, classical, funk, and pop. (No prizes for guessing which genre Poppy and her mashup-obsessed friends fly their flags for.) Convinced that Queen Barb is just a friend she hasn’t met, Poppy sets off with her skeptical best friend, Branch (Justin Timberlake), to stop Barb from enslaving the other trolls with her militant rockism.
Yes, Trolls World Tour takes straight aim at hardcore rockers, with their beloved Scorpions and Heart covers, complete with a tongue-wagging, California-inflected vocal caricature from musical theater enthusiast Bloom. Anyone at least hoping for an original Crazy Ex-Girlfriend-style rock-song pastiche that goes deeper than the riff from “Barracuda” will have to wait until deep into the credits, and even then the song comes from rock band HAIM, rather than Bloom herself. The other genres have oddly cast representatives, too: The movie’s hybrid of marketing and casting assumes that the world collectively associates old-fashioned sad-bastard country music with American Idol champion Kelly Clarkson. Surprisingly, the film does temper its poptimism as the story progresses, even daring to suggest that crowd-pleasing, pleasure-driven pop music has a destructive legacy of appropriation to contend with.
Trolls World Tour might have been a better movie if it had delved further into this idea, or evinced a deep-dive love of its own musical touchstones, rather than a generic, half-irreverent enthusiasm. But thoughtful contemplation is not the Trolls way. The Trolls way is to force its frantic dilettantism through a hypercolored filter of animation artistry. The resulting kiddie psychedelia is often wildly inventive, even exhilarating, especially—as with the previous installment—during the movie’s more freewheeling first half. The filmmakers led by director Walt Dohrn specialize in giving whimsy a tactile vividness: the country-music kingdom that’s built on a landscape of piled-up blankets; the talking slide whistle from the classical-music kingdom that’s animated with a stuttery style meant to resemble stop-motion; a wacked-out mixed-media interlude that offers a fleeting glimpse of the afterlife.
With all of these colors, oddly-shaped mouths, and exuberantly cheesy pop mashups, it’s easy not to notice how thin the supporting characters are. Cooper (Ron Funches) has a subplot about his search for other trolls who are more like him, which becomes a logistical challenge based on his utter lack of distinguishable personality traits. James Corden, meanwhile, continues to earn his title of professional nuisance by voicing Biggie, who tags along on Branch and Poppy’s mission seemingly for the express purpose of taking a chorus on “Who Let The Dogs Out.” For that matter, the leads aren’t always well-served either. It’s hard to understand why Trolls World Tour finds time for a thread about Branch struggling to confess his love for Poppy. Platonic male-female friendships are apparently still too transgressive for a family film; the children demand to know whether Branch will be friend-zoned!
But Timberlake and Kendrick do make a good, tuneful team, and the starry voice actors are mostly just additional batches of glitter, anyway. Whether it’s Sam Rockwell doing a down-home drawl or Anna Kendrick singing a few bars of a troll-centric riff on “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Trolls World Tour throws everything at its disposal into the air. The frenzy both enhances and undermines its message of inclusivity: The movie lets its cross-genre freak flag fly, secure in the belief that deep down, we’re all just different kinds of pop.