Review: Delirious animated musical ‘Trolls’ is both craven and charismatic
If you happen to be running low on hallucinogens this weekend, never fear: There’s an unusually rich bounty of options to choose from at your local multiplex. Should you emerge from Marvel’s delirious “Doctor Strange” in need of a stronger fix, you might consider subjecting yourself to the full-on psychotropic assault of “Trolls,” a supremely bizarre, candy-colored confetti explosion of a movie from the visual artists and merchandising wizards at DreamWorks Animation.
When he was building his Troll-doll empire in the ’60s, Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam could scarcely have imagined that these pint-sized, plume-haired creations would one day get a feature-length cartoon of their own. Or that in that cartoon, they would do things like walk and talk, sing and dance, fart glitter and defecate cupcakes, all while crooning along to a Justin Timberlake-produced soundtrack. And you thought cinema was dead!
Actually, maybe it is, and “Trolls” is simply its dying dream — a collective last-gasp hallucination of blinding rainbow hues, recycled disco tunes and aggressive, borderline-fascist good vibes. All in all, there are worse ways to go. As infernally sugary as this movie may sound on paper, and however mercenary its commercial intentions, it’s hard to resist its silly, utopian vision of a world where happiness reigns, love wins and the mere sound of Timberlake’s voice carries the promise of salvation.
In addition to his soundtrack contributions (including a few original songs), Timberlake voices the role of Branch, a Troll with an Eeyore-esque complexion and a demeanor to match. In that respect, Branch is decidedly an outlier. The Trolls, we’re told at the outset, are “the happiest creatures the world had ever known,” each one sporting a wild, brightly colored shock of hair and an equally loud personality. (Some of the prominent Trolls in the cast are brightly voiced by Russell Brand, James Corden, Ron Funches and Jeffrey Tambor.)
Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, James Corden and Zooey Deschanel voice characters in “Trolls.”
Life wasn’t always this upbeat. Once upon a time, the Trolls were imprisoned by the Bergens, a miserable race of giant monsters who believe that eating Trolls is the only route to happiness. Fortunately, they managed to escape and have spent the last two decades in blissful freedom — none freer than the high-spirited Princess Poppy, who is blessed with a soul of purest fuchsia and the estimable pipes of Anna Kendrick, as we hear firsthand during an upbeat opening medley.
Unfortunately, Poppy’s talent for headlining impromptu singalongs and insanely overproduced rock concerts attracts the unwanted attention of a wandering Bergen named Chef (Christine Baranski), who is determined to put Trolls back on the menu in Bergen Town. And so it’s up to Poppy, with the reluctant Branch in tow, to save her friends from being eaten by the hapless Bergen king, Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who simply longs to experience real happiness for the first time in his life.
It’s probably sheer coincidence that Poppy sports the same name and sunny temperament as the heroine of Mike Leigh’s 2008 film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” a live-action comedy that also works as a subtle dramatic inquiry into the elusive nature of happiness: Why do some people have it and others don’t? In its much more colorful, rambunctious, kid-friendly style, “Trolls” poses much the same question.
Branch will be forced to open up about why he doesn’t like to sing, dance or hug the other Trolls, triggering a traumatic flashback that, in keeping with the movie’s “Now That’s What I Call Emotional Manipulation!” musical approach, will be accompanied by a creamy rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Elsewhere, Poppy reaches out to Bridget Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), a lonely Bergen scullery maid whose own desire for romantic fulfillment (cue Lionel Richie’s “Hello”) will hand her a crucial role in the Trolls’ rescue mission.
“You don’t have to eat Trolls to be happy” is a fairly innocuous, eminently reasonable message for a children’s movie (it gets a bit creepier if you swap out “eat Trolls” for “take your meds,” but whatever). But after Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out,” which offered such a moving, sophisticated reminder of the importance of expressing both sorrow and joy, “Trolls” can seem emotionally blunt and bullying by comparison, with its insistence on slapping a smile on everyone’s face.
And yet, smile you will, often against your better judgment. As directed by Mike Mitchell (“Shrek Forever After,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo”), “Trolls” isn’t a work of any special emotional depth or narrative imagination. But from scene to scene, from Simon & Garfunkel to Gorillaz, it generates a genially bonkers, where-the-hell-is-this-going momentum all its own.
When was the last time you saw a movie that featured both a sweetly romantic first date at a roller-skating rink and a “Lord of the Rings”-style giant-spider attack? Or that so accurately reproduced the experience of listening to Cyndi Lauper while eating amphetamine-laced rainbow sherbet? Skip “Trolls” at your peril. It might not be much more than “Pitch Perfect: Play-Doh Edition,” but it’s also kind of a doll.
MPAA rating: PG, for some mild rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: In general release
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