Directed by Walt Dohrn (co-directed by Tim Heitz)
Written by Elizabeth Tippett
I'm not so gone that I don't recognize that this ought to embarrass me, somewhere between "slightly" and "extremely," but I'm in the odd position of being actually disappointed by the third Trolls movie, and, indeed, out of what I'll admit is an enduring fandom for DreamWorks Animation's Trolls franchise. Odder still, I am almost positive that by the end of this it will turn out that my review of this third Trolls film, Trolls Band Together, will actually have no higher number of specific complaints than my review of its immediate predecessor, 2020's Trolls World Tour, which is my favorite of the Trolls feature films and the beefiest source of that aforementioned fandom, or even the first one, 2016's Trolls; it may even wind up with less. Meanwhile, in some ways I'm relieved by Band Together, because the feature films aren't even the only entries into this franchise's, ahem, canon: yes, there's 2017's functionally-named holiday short, "Trolls Holiday," which would, in full earnestness, readily make any top ten list of my favorite animated works of the last decade (by which I mean 2014-2023 or the more competitive 2010-2019, whichever you'd like), but there's also the second holiday short, released between this and World Tour in 2021, "Trolls: Holidays In Harmony," which is something of a wet noodle. And Trolls Band Together is, at the very least, not any noodle, except for the parts where it is, in fact, dedicated passionately to things resembling noodles, these being very easily-identifiable as its best parts. I'm sure this makes very little sense as yet, but, you know, it's a Trolls movie. Some level of senselessness is to be expected and desired.
But anyway, if I'm disappointed—and it's not some horrendous disappointment, and let's call it right now, I'm going to give it the hardest possible 7/10—it's not because of its story as such, which at least apparently retains the structural sturdiness that World Tour brought to the table after the structurally-very-wonky first film (Trolls' "our heroes journey to the kingdom of the monsters to convince the monsters not to eat them" and World Tour's "the genocidal ideology of the rock-and-roll Trolls must be vanquished" sound like equally straightforward framings—also weirdly dark under their colorful surfaces for a couple of kid's movies, right?—but only the latter actually is straightforward, instead of feeling like it restarts itself as a less-good movie halfway through). Band Together even largely replicates World Tour's travelogue adventure, to its benefit—it enjoys all the advantages of a quest across numerous strange lands, but takes us to all-new places (and in a different paradigm), so it never feels like a retread—though even if I wouldn't ask for a truly intelligent kid's film twice in a row, I don't know if Band Together still absolutely had to be such a sheer drop-off from World Tour, one of the single most smartly-built films about the Trump Era (my overarching problem was in its execution as a musical; also, fuck you, because I damn well did see you roll your eyes back there). Well, whether it had to be or not, it's a little shocking how basic Band Together is, falling from World Tour's delightfully light-touch storytelling, where you're not even required to notice any resonance and you can just enjoy the bright hues and the heady concepts inherent to the notion of musical genres at war with one another as pleasures in themselves. Now, we have a movie with a bunch of juvenile moral instruction about how you ought to respect your siblings' life choices, and I can't tell if it's actually more infantile than just juvenile: the argument it's making seems like it should only apply to children old enough to have properly individuated, maybe even full-on teenagers, but it's pitched at the socio-emotional level of children who've just graduated to not peeing themselves, and not even so long ago they can't still be proud of it.
But hey, at least it's still kind of nasty, in that it involves psychic vampirism. So let's get that story out of the way, because it's not remotely the most important or interesting thing here. We begin one month after World Tour (and I don't know why it feels the need to be so concrete about this, but I'll just make the quick aside that Band Together is invested in continuity to a remarkable and not-highly-useful degree for a movie made for babies, inasmuch as it has an ideal viewer, who would have sharp recollections of the first Trolls, a movie that came out before the actual core demographic for this movie would've been born). But anyway, one month after World Tour, the Cyrano-style romance that Trolls became in its second half is finally going to be confirmed, with the wedding of the king of the formerly-Troll-eating Bergens, Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and his bride, ex-scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel).
Our heroic Trolls, Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake), have naturally been invited—event-planning Poppy has naturally inflicted herself upon it as its architect—but the nuptials are interrupted by the return of one of Branch's heretofore-unmentioned brothers, John Dory (Eric André), who reveals Branch's secret history: sliding awkwardly into the continuity this screenplay cares too much about and calling more attention to the dubiousness of it than is strictly necessary, in between Branch's birth and the cannibalism of his grandmother by Bergens, he was the youngest member of Brozone, a boy band of brothers who attained legendary stature only to break up due to the toxicity of the older brothers, particularly John Dory's peremptory manner. But he needs Branch's help now, because one of their other brothers, Floyd (Troye Sivan), has been captured by two members of a race of humanoid giants, Viva (Amy Schumer) and Veneer (Andrew Rannells), in order to mystically extract his talent to fuel their own pop star careers. Branch reluctantly accedes to John Dory's pleas; Poppy joins them, and so does, for a little extra fun, Tiny Diamond (Kenan Thompson); and to save their lost brother, Branch and John Dory set out to find their other two siblings, Spruce (Daveed Diggs) and Clay (Kid Cudi), to put Brozone back together and save the day.
So far, so structurally sound, and it would've stayed that way—the biggest problem might be "wait, shouldn't Timberlake play the prickish, self-aggrandizing leader?", but I kid, the biggest problem is that I'm almost certain the script propounds two mutually-exclusive rationales for how John Dory discovers his brother's captivity—except the screenplay also perceives a need to jam a B-plot and even a C-plot into this hour and a half. The former is sort of obligatory and can't really be helped: Band Together represents a full-on swap-out of its usual roles—we can call Poppy and Branch "deuteragonists" if you really want to stretch the term, but the franchise has historically entrusted almost literally all of its actual narrative activity to Poppy—and accordingly Kendrick still needs something to do to justify her involvement, and what the film comes up with is a minor-key reflection of Branch's plot, where on their journey they find Poppy's long-lost sister, Velvet (Camila Cabello), a Troll who's built an alternative society in the shadows unaware that the threat of getting eaten had ended. It's fine, and badly truncated, and probably should be its own movie; it's also simultaneously dependent on that aforementioned good memory for what happened back in Trolls seven years ago without exploiting, either for complications or for jokes, much of anything about it, such as how Poppy's sister turns out to be the exact girl version of what Branch used to be, which goes unacknowledged presumably because Branch is too busy in his A-plot to even notice. The C-plot, meanwhile, is Bridget and Gristle on their honeymoon, and I don't really know why it's here, in that I don't think anyone was jonesing for the continued romantic adventures of Bidget and Gristle in an almost hermetically-isolated subplot. In some airless, philosophical sense, I guess we can't deny that it affects the sequence of events—it collides with the B-plot after the A-plot has departed, which sends it rolling back into the A-plot the same way a billiard ball may strike a third object by accident—but it's not remotely hard to imagine something cleaner, and while it's perfectly fine for a loose comedy to have a whole separate thread that exists for no reason but to be amusing, even by this standard it feels like nobody cared for it that much, since it's barely extant (I'm fairly certain the entire first hour of the movie involves only one single 30-second cutaway back to it) and also not especially funny.
Which is I guess where the "by no means bad, just disappointing" part lies: Band Together is funny but probably the least funny of the Trolls features, and it's frequently seeking its humor in different ways, possibly without even realizing it's doing so—and some of this is just straight-up pacing problems, where bubbles of low joke density, involving characters standing around discussing exposition, pop up more often than in any of the others (it's more successful when trying to be funny than the second half of the first Trolls, but is probably trying less; it at least extracts a good runner from this, in the form of dusting a light absurdity upon the need to constantly repeat the film's premise to each new brother). Rejiggering the protagonists around could not have helped, though, given that Branch's function has always been to serve as the frowning straightman to Poppy's excessive dancing, singing, hugging, and scrapbooking. Since the three-quarter mark of the first Trolls, Branch hasn't even really had any shtick of his own, and so we wind up with the franchise's dynamic comedic engine backgrounded in favor of Brozone (the franchise's traditional supporting cast is downright exiled), and the overt parody of positivity that's driven the entire franchise to this point exists only when Kendrick manages to get a line in edgewise. That they're basically trying to build a comic protagonist out of Branch from the ground up is the main reason I wouldn't confidently assert, "Justin Timberlake is a little bored of this"—it could just be the added responsibility led to a more tentative performance—but the thought crossed my mind. Even Kendrick, always this series' MVP, might be, but she's not important enough to the movie to say for sure. Now, it is never tedious: the wacky mood is the same and it's always at least open to the possibility of a joke, and surely finds something that hits a minimum of "cute" no less than once every two minutes. (And the new folks do a decent job: for Sivan, Kid Cudi, and Cabello, Band Together might be career-best work as actors. Take that as you will.) This is the first Trolls film I've seen in a theater, though, and I'm at least open to contemplating whether I'm simply not prone to laughing out loud at the lame-on-purpose kiddieness-for-grown-ups tenor of these things, still being pursued here even if by different means, in public. Whatever the case, it only made me laugh long and involuntarily the once, though it's a very excellent joke, whereupon John Dory expresses the difficulties he'll face remaining a big fan of Viva and Veneer now that he knows their entire musical career is based on slowly torturing his brother to death.
But I keep thinking it's more the pacing than the material, because none of the Trolls are hilarious on the basis of their screenplays; and this is where we tack into the more interesting question of whether Band Together is a good cartoon and the answer is emphatically yes. It does not quite feel like the same headlong rush into an insane little girl's paracosmic fantasy that the second film and first half of the first film offer—the exhausting inexhaustibility of the imaginative ways they employed the idea of zany worlds handcrafted by a never-seen child, out of felt and cotton balls and other crap you might find around the average home—but it does invest instead in a few big ideas, and it invests heavily and successfully, with the same preoccupation that all the Trolls films have had with how textures can work, how textures do work, and even how textures won't work, and that's the gag, in 3-D computer animation.
It has some bibs and bobs besides those big ideas—part of the "pacing it out" problem is when it arrives on something wild, it doesn't spend long enough on it, like the 2-D animation outsourced to Titmouse, Inc. that comes at the "let's imply that they've taken LSD offscreen" joke from "Trolls Holiday" from a different angle, recreating very satisfactorily, but far too briefly, a trippy head comic from 197X, all "xerographed" lines and prismatic hippie nonsense—but the big ideas are astoundingly good ones. There is, for instance, the home Spruce has made with his new family (and if I have been down on the dialogue jokes, it comes complete with a more-or-less open sexual gag), his spouse drawn from a race of what I guess I'd have to describe as "homemade Muppets," who are also, at maturity, about five hundred times the Trolls' size. There is, likewise, Viva and Veneer's assistant (Zosia Mamet), who is... some kind of handicraft made out of crimped strips of cardboard with sunglasses on. Above all, there are Viva and Veneer themselves, who are just outstanding, some sort of 2020s pop take on 70s glam that is a subversive parody of the 50s, filtered through Blade Runner and rendered as a cross between rubberhose 30s animation and, like, fucking Astro Boy. So this is where "noodles" comes in, with these defiantly plasticine figures made of tubes that move like they don't even have character rigs, just wiggling limbs and barely-expressive mask-like faces and torsos and especially hair (which is also made of tubes) that may literally not move at all; it is akin to actual bad CGI, purposefully bad CGI used to make them a weird and dangerous assault on the senses and on the aesthetic of everything else in the movie—for starters, everything else in this entire world is soft and plush and warm, and they feel hard and metallic and cold—and then, for the cherry on top, they're enormous on a Troll-based scale, so whenever they're around it's about giant, grotesque pop monsters feasting on the musical souls of their victims. Christ, Schumer and Rannells also turn in the best performances (and best sibling dynamic!) in the whole ensemble, the former comically cruel and bitter, the latter comically stupid and empty.
As a musical, it's arguably better than World Tour as a matter of technical construction, probably just because "being a great musical" is less mission-critical here, but this series has now forgotten how to do anything but medleys—if Trolls obviously didn't set the world afire with its bona fides as an animated musical, it still had a basic sense of how to conventionally utilize songs in service of a story, and both it and World Tour had at least one number that did set my personal world afire—but it is, if nothing else, still pursuing those medley montages with vertiginous energy both in terms of bizarre editing flourishes and an unhinged imaginary "camera." At its finest, we get almost sixty seconds of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" over a car chase through an impossible cityscape that's like a hallucination of a Hot Wheels set—incidentally, the Trolls flicks are, I think, immune to charges of using overplayed hits—and the song, at least, is a good choice, its thrumming bass drone deployed to emphasize Viva and Veneer's overwhelming evilosity, so if the film commits one really unforgiveable sin, it's simply that it doesn't crack the incredibly easy problem of how to end this on an explosive musical climax. If it's two sins, then Viva and Veneer should've been in the movie four times as much.
But that sums up what's going wrong and right with Trolls Band Together: there's a certain tiredness that's seeped into all the above-the-line aspects of the film, from the script to the marquee performances (hell, the title is a little clunky), and director Walt Dohrn is doing a creditable but oft-uncertain job of tying it all together with that effortlessly-effortful DreamWorks comedy verve that I so adore about this studio when it's at its best; but the sheer energy and creativity of every single below-the-line element, the talent and imagination of the animators and designers and story artists, blazes through.
P.S.: The film also features a reunion of *NSYNC, if you care about such things. It happens towards the end and I almost wish it hadn't because, absent any preconceptions about what the non-Timberlake members of the band sounded like, I was really enjoying an entirely-imagined meta element, dependent on my sadly-incorrect belief that they were playing the members of Brozone. Oh well!