Saturday, April 11, 2020

Rock and roll never forgets


Directed by Walt Dohrn
Co-directed by David P. Smith
Written by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Elizabeth Tippet, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky

Spoiler alert: moderate

I've talked a big game the past few days about DreamWorks saving American feature film animation, but over the last month and a half, DWA's been tasked with an even harder job: saving American feature films, period.  For reasons I don't suppose I need to name, movie theaters are closed, and we are only halfway through (if we're lucky) an almost entirely moribund spring movie season.  At present, Universal has been the sole distributor around to respond to the current crisis in any way beyond just going into a coma and hoping that things will be better by the time they come out of it; even in Universal's case, that's been most of their plan.

But then there's the grand experiment, Trolls World Tour, and film legend shall always have it as the very first studio blockbuster released "day-and-date" (a borderline-meaningless category in this context) with its scheduled theatrical release.  Maybe this heralds a sea change.  Maybe it doesn't.  For now, I'm just so glad that this was the one they chose to serve as their VOD standard-bearer (even if the industry really, really needs to figure out a better price point than twenty freakin' bucks, because that will simply not fly in the usual case).  Universal couldn't have given me a better gift, for it was the one film this season I was most excited about.  So, does World Tour do what it sets out to?  Does it save the cinema?

The fact is I had left it very little room to not disappoint me, and so, yes, it is kind of disappointing in small ways, here and there, and only manages to live up to the thing I'd built in my head for brief spurts, the longest of which is the first ten minutes, which go all in on an ecstatic reintroduction to (and reimagination of) this franchise's world, and which has the best music.  It's rather needless to say, but going downhill from the beginning is hardly the best way for any movie to comport itself.  That said, it is absolutely worthy of the burden placed upon it—one of the really great things about VOD is that you can rewatch a movie the next day if you want, and it surely doesn't say bad things about World Tour that I did—and if this review winds up going more negative than it seems the numerical score supports, it's because I've already spoken at length about how wonderful these stupid things are in their aesthetic and mood, and there's only so many overwrought metaphors I can use regarding the terrific sensation of drowning in glitter and being strangled by felt while a screen ejaculates every color of the rainbow directly into your eyes.

So: in the unabashed plus column, World Tour comes with a mighty advantage over 2016's Trolls, because it actually offers a scenario that fills out an hour and a half, which Trolls did not, and because it understands that its predecessor was not best-served by spending half its runtime idling in its least visually-interesting location.  And that scenario is one genuine doozy: it turns out that the Trolls we met last time and who spent so much of their time singing and dancing are but one of the six tribes who came into existence at the dawn of life in this world, each of whom organized themselves around their particular brand of music—classical, rock, techno, funk, country, and our guys were inevitably bound to be pop—and each with their own mystical artifact, a magical string that powers their songs.  Soon thereafter, each tribe went their separate ways with their separate string, unable to understand or enjoy the music of their fellows.  This lore has been all-but-forgotten, but the Rock Trolls, under the sway of mad Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), have returned to remind us. Theirs is a holy crusade to reunite the strings on one guitar—a guitar that plays nothing, but nothing, except rock and roll.  With Barb's apocalyptic metalheads at the door, Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) of the Pop Trolls has only one choice, which is to go to her and try to make friends.  No, our Trolls are still not very bright, and the closest they've got is Branch (Justin Timberlake), who once again fulfills his role of having grave misgivings about Poppy's mission as he accompanies her on her trek through the varied musically-inflected lands that represent their fragmented race.

And so far, so great: "magical war between abstract musical concepts for supremacy" is possibly the coolest idea ever, doubly so when it takes the form of a presently dying-or-dead genre (that is, rock and roll) that previously saw itself as the center of the musical universe for decades, now bent toward vengeance upon the world that's lost interest it.  It's an allegory for a lot of things, not just music, and I choose to see it as exceptionally clever, especially considering where it winds up going.  It was certainly a boon for the filmmakers: the army of screenwriters who never once have to stress about figuring out what to do next, because the plot points in a fairly straight line but lends itself to so many ideas that it's constitutionally incapable of ever once getting boring; the even larger army of designers and animators, who once again go wild with the overtly-artificial textures of Trolls, but with an infinitely greater amount of variety, with each nation represented by their own colors and substances, from denim to vinyl to pixels; and, for obvious reasons, the musical supervisors in charge of this mostly-jukebox musical, who could choose whatever songs struck their fancy, and it would be hard for it not to work.

It's so damned rich in potential that World Tour winds up with the precise opposite problem of its flopsweatty predecessor: while Trolls had enormous difficulty even buffing itself up to a slim 93 minutes, World Tour is somehow even shorter, despite having three to five times as much acceptable story material.  Sure, it's very nice that DWA has made the quietly radical decision to continue to mostly operate within the classical 90-100 minute form, especially in an age when every other movie—even including other cartoons, at least at Disney and Pixar—keeps getting longer and more bloated.  Yet there is still such a thing, however rare, of a movie that's too short (and one is tempted to assume that the reason DWA movies are short is not because DWA deliberately chooses to make better, briefer movies, so much as DWA lacks the financial resources to follow the industry trend).  Ultimately, it's a razor-sharp double-edged sword: for all that World Tour is constantly moving from one overheated prismatic spectacle to another, and for all that it is commendably willing to waste time with the silly fun nonsense of this franchise (which is, after all, based body and soul on silly fun nonsense humor), it is not always great about letting its concepts breathe, and this is felt most keenly in its theoretical reason for existence, the music itself.

I will not, I think, complain too much about how it tends to popify everything regardless of its arguments to the contrary, because while this is true there's a certain tone a Trolls film has to strike; I will also not complain—again, too much—about the massively reductive categorization scheme it deploys, because this is a movie for children and more of an invitation to music than any robust study of it.  (I mean, give it a break: the smartest movie in the world would probably never be able to square a plot based on genre-based musical warfare with the very basic fact that 20th century Western musical genres overlap massively at the same time they've fragmented into a myriad, leading to such intellectually fruitless post-film questions as, "If this movie had used a hit Heart song besides old, overplayed 'Barracuda,' which Troll nation would sing it?")  So, yeah, I will complain a little: for one thing, I have a suspicion that the distinction the film wants to make between "pop" and "techno" (represented here by a cover of Kraftwerk's single most audience-friendly song) is quite possibly the reason that Techno is the first tribe Barb blows up; for another, there exist also a smattering of unaligned Trolls, each embodying certain other musical traditions (and brought into the plot by Barb as mercenaries given the promise of receiving a tiny protected enclave if they help), and these Trolls include a K-pop group, which I might be able to accept more readily as different enough from "pop" if "pop" were not part of its name.  Maybe even more readily still if Poppy and Branch's (parodic) medley of "the greatest songs ever" didn't include "Gangnam Style," for God's sake.

Well, the noble goal of burying an introductory musical survey course inside a crazed musical adventure only works as well as the runtime allows, and it certainly does not allow anything like a perfect balance, though they give it the old college try.  Kelly Clarkson gets a very cute parody of country music that I don't imagine captures country's foundational essence ("being sad and nihilistic" could hardly be the definition of any genre so diverse), but does get to effectively mock some tropes; meanwhile, one of the film's highlights is the thing that could've been the most annoyingly didactic, when Poppy meets the Funk Trolls (ruled by no less a figure than George Clinton, allowing a bunch of white film critics in their 30s to pretend they have opinions about Parliament Funkadelic that were not formed by PCU), whereupon she bears witness to the Funk Trolls' more accurate and less sugar-coated version of their world's history, allowing for another, even-better full-length song (hip-hop, in this case, but the fact is that World Tour's notion of genre is distractingly raced, albeit in a deliberate and I suppose fairly intelligent way).  It also happens to accompany what is arguably the film's single strongest flex as a work of animation, as the cutesy Troll figures take on the form of 70s airbrushed album covers to relate the true myth of the Trolls' original sin.

Unfortunately, not everybody gets the same fawning treatment: the Classical Trolls don't get anything resembling a number of their own—not exactly a big surprise, but if director Walt Dohrn is willing to reference Fantasia as an inspiration, like, at least try to live up to it, and they're the closest thing World Tour gets to dull design—but maybe the least well-served of all of them is, somehow, rock.  It might be the film's severest problem; not necessarily because I would like to hear Bloom sing rock standards, though I do, but because the whole narrative hinges entirely on rock as an unstoppable, elemental force, and the animation definitely gets it there.  The music, less so: Barb gets naught but fragments to go alongside her withering critiques of other genres, which themselves would probably have more power if the film helped her make a positive case for her genre's superiority.  (It would also have been fun to have dug into what some folks find annoying about rock and roll, like its penchant for indulgent musical virtuosity, though I guess we can make do with its parody of the rocker pose, evidently based mostly on the Ramones.)  Likewise, while it's not strictly music-related, it probably didn't help rock's share of this film that Dohrn apparently convinced himself that his movie's plot was significantly more complicated than it is, and therefore saw a need to waste time (and Bloom's aptly-stereotyped performance) on a veritable shitload of expository monologues that tell us precious little that wasn't made clear as crystal the first time Barb opened her mouth, to the extent that it's a blessed relief when, instead of launching into another denim-based PowerPoint, she explains the final stroke of her plan with a coy "You'll see!"

Then again, maybe the film's real biggest problem is just qualitative: after spending  85 or so minutes making necessarily simplistic claims about the distinctions between music and cultures, it arrives at a finale that threatens a semi-sophisticated argument about how, at their most primitivist levels, and in their literal hearts, they're also the same. The problem is a finale of this nature requires a genuine fuckin' banger, and in "Just Sing" it just doesn't find anything like one. It's not even in the same league as Trolls' original songs; that it's also a sloppy production suffering under the requirement to bow to six genres doesn't speak in its favor either.  I mean, it's okay, but a song about how songs are the most amazing things in the universe simply can't survive being mediocre, which is why Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey closes out with KISS, and the most enjoyably-performed song in it is not "Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun."  Though by no means do I wish to demean the astounding animated choreography of "Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun."

Which means that's me done bitching about a movie that I otherwise out-and-out loved: World Tour doesn't represent any particularly revolutionary advance for DWA, at least in terms of technology and technique, but it nevertheless moves the studio forward; it's certainly one of their richest productions, no mean feat considering it was done on a comparative shoestring (well, $100 million versus Trolls' and The Hidden World's respective $130 million budgets).  In certain respects, World Tour even strongly outshines its predecessor, and it takes as much of its lead from the "Trolls Holiday" TV special, still the best Trolls there is: World Tour has an urgent need to get psychedelic every single chance it gets—it's especially great at visualizing music as a weapon, from Barb's sonic frontal attacks to the more insidious tenor of smooth jazz—and backs that up with a whole host of new, almost-uniformly-great-looking characters.  (I'm especially struck by how perfect mohawked, red-eyed Barb is as a kid's parody of a coked-out rocker.)  Basically, as a cheery technicolor feast, it's one of the most exciting films that are likely to arrive this year, or any year; musically, it could have done a lot better than it did, and that's enough of an issue in a musical about music that you are left wondering about how great it could have been.

Score: 8/10

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