In Pixar’s Inside Out, Pete Docter and his crew reminded audiences of the human truth that even life’s happiest moments are inevitably tinged with sadness. The power and honesty of that message makes the theme of DreamWorks’ Trolls — that we’re all just chock full of happiness if we’ll just let it out–feel simple-minded.
The characters in the film are based on the troll dolls Danish designer Thomas Dam created in 1959. Wide-nosed and goggle-eyed with a tuft of sheepskin hair, the dolls enjoyed a brief fad in the US in the early 60’s; several attempts were made to revive their popularity over the decades. (Full disclosure: My younger sister had one: I thought it was ugly, even at nine.)
As no story was attached the original toys, writers Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger and Erica Rivinoja created one. Trolls are the cheeriest creatures ever: they constantly sing, dance and hug. But they have to live in hiding from the ogre-like Bergens who believe that eating Trolls is the only thing that can make them feel happy.
Princess Poppy (voice by Anna Kendrick) gives a gaudy party that attracts the nasty Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski), who kidnaps several Trolls to feed to King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his courtiers. Poppy sets off to rescue them, dragging along the one gloomy Troll, Branch (Justin Timberlake). They convince Bergen scullery Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) to aid them in return for helping her woo Gristle. Of course, everything ends in an upbeat musical number with everyone, even Branch, singing and dancing and high-fiving.
Like last year’s Strange Magic, Trolls is largely a juke box musical, despite some new material from Timberlake. And like Strange Magic, the music feels like it came from a very dusty old juke box: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (1977), Lionel Richie’s “Hello” (1983), Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” (1959). These aren’t nostalgic tunes for the parents of the kids who are the obvious audience for Trolls: They weren’t even born when Summer was moaning, “I feel love” in discos across the country. It’s grandpa music.
Directors Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell and their artists wisely discarded the icky flesh-colored plastic of the original dolls, creating a world that looks like felt and other fabrics. The more 2D sections that illustrate Poppy’s scrapbooks may remind audiences of the 2008 “Little Big Planet” game. But the colors have been pumped up to the point that the film looks like Day-Glo® on steroids. There are rainbows of hair so bright the viewer reaches for sunglasses, and a couple sparkly trolls fart glitter to decorate parties and blind enemies.
Branch, the skeptical troll, looks like Carl in Up; even some of his expressions are the same. The Chef and most of the other Bergens recall Laika’s Boxtrolls; the über cool Cloud character resembles the Himalayan Snow Man in Monsters, Inc. Poppy is yet another spunky CG heroine, in the tradition of Rapunzel in Tangled. She sets out to rescue her captured friends, but Branch does most of the heavy lifting. Still, Poppy wins his heart and Bridget wins Gristle’s.
I left the theater feeling like I did when I’d been stuck at an elementary school party where the teacher insisted everyone was having fun, even when we weren’t.