Directed by Mike Mitchell
Co-directed by Walt Dohrn
Written by Erica Rivinoja, Jonathan Abel, and Glenn Berger
Maybe the most underdiscussed thing in big-ticket American animation right now is the way that DreamWorks—yes, DreamWorks—has, very quietly, become the most reliable studio in the business They have done this in the face of a lot of stiff competition, above all the goliath they were explicitly founded to sling a stone at, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and that's not to even mention the other famous cartoon studio Disney owns, Pixar. Now, it's obviously helped DWA's case that WDAS and Pixar alike have found themselves mired in a holding pattern the past couple of years (which, for WDAS, is putting it nicely), but let's not let that place an asterisk next to DWA's accomplishment, because they have done this, also, under the burden of one of the worst critical reputations in the industry. This was fairly arrived at, the result of a decade spent exploiting Shrek and Madagascar and Jerry Seinfeld (and they still sometimes make cartoons about racing snails); it has, perhaps, been unfairly applied, because it's been a while since that was the side their bread was buttered on.
Finally, they have done this from the most dubious of foundations, for other than the crown jewel of their output over the previous decade, the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy, DWA has made a curious habit of putting all the increasingly well-honed resources at their disposal into some very bad ideas, even cringe-inducingly bad ideas. (And even the Dragon trilogy only has a good premise on paper; in practice, they became inane nonsense immediately after the first one, and the third was the best American animated feature of 2019 nevertheless, which says something complimentary of its own.) It's strange, but it's true: the Kung Fu Pandas and Abominable are DWA being reasonable, inasmuch as those films' premises (talking animals doing martial arts; E.T. with a yeti) are merely a little goofy or a little uninspired, rather than on-their-face awful. Plainly, their 2016 offering Trolls is from the latter category, apparently in a competition with the following year's Boss Baby to see which one could turn out a trailer more apt to make an adult grind their teeth to powder in irritation and secondhand embarrassment. Yet they're both really good. Trolls, shockingly, is downright excellent, and while I should probably wait till Friday and its sequel's release to proclaim DWA's ascendance, just in case I wind up coming off more foolish than I already do when I say things like, "actually, the studio that made Home rules." But four really-good-to-borderline-masterpiece films in a row (and the necessity of going back to 2015 to find the last bad one) is no mean feat; and, hey, I'm trying to force a narrative here because by the end of the week I'm confident it'll be five.
"Forcing the narrative" is possibly the best way to appreciate the first Trolls anyhow, since it's one of those films that gets better with rewatches, not because rewatching Trolls reveals hidden layers or deeper meanings or anything ridiculous like that, but because it smooths out the problems that are very much inherent to it as a film based on a long-gone toy line, which somehow was not a deliberate LEGO Movie rip-off (for it began development in 2012), but comes off in almost every respect like it must have been, and which has demonstrable trouble filling out its modest 93 minute runtime despite half of that runtime being devoted to musical numbers and montages, and another quarter spent on non sequitur-based humor. Sure, I was already fond of it once I caught up with it in 2017—anti-DreamWorks sentiment has material consequences—but it's clearly the case that Trolls falls into two very distinct phases, the first of which sets up a marvelous world to play in and is basically flawless, and the second of which abandons that world in order to sputter around with a Cyrano de Bergerac story that unfolds on behalf of a character who has existed solely in a pair of reaction shots prior to the movie's decision to restart itself with a new set of stakes at around the 42 minute mark. I am therefore obliged to admit that I have permitted the movie to hector me into enjoying the weaker material that forms that second phase (which is a neat trick in itself, since "being hectored into joy" mirrors its internal narrative quite well), but each time I see it again I've been surprised at how it really has managed to wear down my objections, and I now only blush a little bit during its uncoolest parts, and feel only slight shame in loving it.
So: this "adaptation," developed by Erica Rinijova and fashioned into a screenplay by kid's movie vets Jonathan Abel and Glenn Berger, labors under what could've been a disadvantage, namely the fact that Thomas Dam's perpetually-smiling Good Luck Troll toys, recalled less for any specific nostalgia they generate than because they were the kind of fad that helps fill out "Remember the __s?"-style retrospectives, failed to come with any established narrative of their own. Meanwhile, the concept here doesn't lend itself quite as readily to the prospect of entering the imagination of a child as it did in The LEGO Movie, even if aspects of the film's aesthetic strongly suggest that this could be what we're watching. Luckily enough, however, this permitted the writers to instead effectively start from scratch, with little more than the very vague notion that the Trolls are happiness incarnate. Hopefully you find that funny, because it is the basis of every joke in the film that isn't a dorky pun: as a narrator explains, the Trolls live to dance, and sing, and hug, and dance-and-sing-and-hug, anddanceandsingandhug, all day, every day. They are exhaustingly, exasperatingly happy. But then, this is only how they live now, for twenty years ago, they were prisoners of the dreaded Bergens, a tribe of misshapen lime- or lavender-tinted giants (they are, in any event, giants from the perspective of the diminutive Trolls), who are as unhappy and unpleasant as the Trolls are their opposite; and, as the Trolls are indeed happiness incarnate, the Bergens discovered that the only way to find sweet release from the depressed hellscapes of their minds was to eat the Trolls, which would at least make them happy for a little while. Thus did they raise the Trolls as livestock, and consume them in a great genocidal orgy once a year, on their only holiday, Trollstice.
It was through the heroic subterfuge of the Trolls' king, Peppy (noted happy and pleasant person, Jeffrey Tambor) that the Trolls ended this holocaust, and ever since their escape they've lived a life in exodus in a small city they built out in the wilds beyond Bergentown, which is where the heir to the throne, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), came of age, and since the Trolls are not only happy but also rather stupid, they have largely forgotten their sad origins and the still-extant danger of the Bergens in favor of dancing, singing, hugging, in some cases scrapbooking, and enjoying extremely loud raves with accompanying extremely bright lightshows. The only Troll, in fact, who has not forgotten is the survivalist Troll, Branch (Justin Timberlake), functioning very much as our stand-in, exhausted and exasperated as we would likely find ourselves if confronted with these people. As the bearer of a tragic backstory that has rendered him the drabbest, grayest, bleakest Troll amidst what is otherwise the uniformly-cheerful rainbow of Troll society, Branch is determined to serve as his community's historical memory and rain on Poppy and company's 24/7 parade, for he is convinced that, one day, the Bergens will come back. Naturally, he is right, and when the Bergens' disgraced head chef (Christine Baranski) finds their secret city—and carries a sampler platter of Poppy's friends back off to Bergentown to redeem her name to the young Bergen king, Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)—it's up to Poppy and Branch to effect a daring rescue and save their civilization.
This brings us through the first not-quite-half, and it's overwhelming in the best way, a literal full-spectrum attack of all the film's strengths: its three-jokes-a-minute humor, always founded in the affably clueless optimism of most of the characters, particularly Poppy, and offset only by Branch's neuroses; the impressively dark and explicitly-described source of the tension between them, that is, the constant threat of our heroes being devoured (it might take until a mid-credits scene to finally get there, but it even has a respectable body count!); and, of course, some of the most explode-off-the-screen candy colors ever presented in an animated film. Maybe even more adorable than the colors, though, is the strange and appealing textures applied to every object, a kind of fuzzy-looking felt, finer in the case of the Trolls themselves, but rougher-hewen and more visible in their environment. All of these things combine and recombine within the sheer creativity of the Trolls' world, from the Trolls' village to the stretch of land between the village and Bergentown, which is characterized by the same handicraft artifice that finds a more direct expression in Poppy's scrapbooking hobby—this is how one comes to suspect this whole story could just be a little girl playing with her dolls and crafts—and this landscape is populated by an endless array of felt monsters that indeed do look like they could've been made by a particularly talented (if rather macabre) child, all of them quite inordinately cute and snuggly while also spending every second of their screentime attempting to eat our heroes or each other. Which is the joke: life is a blast, only it's too bad that it's always trying to kill you. It's beautiful, it's exciting, and it's constantly funny in very unexpected ways. It reaches its apex with the film's stand-out song—for Trolls, in case it wasn't clear, is extremely committed to embodying its characters' ethos in the musical form, and one of the funnier conceptual jokes it offers is that it's a musical with a Justin Timberlake-voiced character who spends most of it refusing to sing.
That stand-out song, anyway, is Kendrick's "Get Back Up Again," an anthem about Poppy's pathological inability to quit, which is joined by the most joyous piece of cinema in the movie, a montage where she very much appears to repeatedly die, and it's never, ever clear how she didn't. It's the most magnificent expression of the film's humor, but, all throughout, Trolls really is one of the most meticulously-made cartoons of its decade. Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn shape their comedy into the kind of object that can generate laughs just out of the way it's put together (and when the material is actually funny, which it often is, it's even better), and they generate tremendous energy out of the kind of punchy editing, optional physics, and highly-flexible, emotionally-subjective character models that 2010s cartoons only belatedly realized could be accomplished as well in CGI as they had been in traditionally animated comedy. But even as they remind you of the grand old stuff, they bring the newer possibilities of CGI to the fore too, with a notional "camera" that they can put anywhere and make do anything they want; and what they want is to constantly seek out the wackiest, most vibrant vistas of an extraordinarily wacky, endlessly vibrant environment.
Or... maybe not that endless. It's occurred to me that the distracted tangent the plot takes once it arrives in Bergentown is maybe not even the foremost problem with Trolls, although it is true that the violent swerve this screenplay makes with Bridget the Bergen scullery maid (Zooey Deschanel), who offers an alliance with Poppy in exchange for the Trolls' makeover-based help in achieving her dream of bagging the king, is very much the kind of thing you'd be less disappointed to see in a forgettable episode of a second season of a television cartoon than you would as the driving force of the latter half of a movie that had heretofore charmed your socks off. I mean, yes, it sucks, but it might simply be that Bergentown, while a well-accomplished piece of design in its own right, is just never as bold as the bursting visual imagination of what's come before, but we spend more time there than in any other location. On the plus side, it does still manage solid laughs, and the music remains applied in smart ways—the introduction to the crabbiness of Bergentown with a downbeat, angry-sounding rendition of the Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" is fairly great—and it even eventually manages to turn into its skid in the climax. In fact, one of the film's most striking visuals, the Trolls going gray inside a pit of blackness as they contemplate extinction, only for the transformative power of pop to bring back their happy colors even in the face of death, is only to be found in this final stretch.
Now, it's never too terribly surprising, of course: can you believe that Branch's heart grows a size or three by the end (without, thankfully, stealing his bite)? Or that the Bergens kick their addiction in favor of a more positive solution to their problems? Or that it ends—get this—in a dance party? Sure, I bet you can. But it does everything a story of its kind needs to, and the songs, original and jukebox alike, are fun and even meaningful in their deceptively shallow way, Trolls representing the moment that DreamWorks took the most clichéd and despised elements of their house style and turned them all the way up to eleven, punching through parody and finding the sincerity that had often eluded them in the past. This whole movie is a DWA dance party ending, and it feels right, rooted deeply in the optimistic belief of the Trolls themselves that, in fact, it's fun to have fun. There's strong evidence that this only works to its utmost in shorter, more concentrated form; besides the evidence of, well, Trolls itself, the 26 minute "Trolls Holiday" TV special is a stone-cold masterpiece of doing everything this movie does and more, but without the burden of having a plot. Even so, that short in itself is reason to take Poppy's lead, and be optimistic for a change. Trolls and its TV follow-up are good enough that Trolls World Tour was already the movie I was looking most forward to this spring, even before it became the only movie to look forward to this spring.