Trolls is DreamWorks animation’s attempt to turn the troll dolls into the Smurfs. It cobbles together a flimsy fantasy world for these old toys – nude genderless little goblins with big bright primary color puffs of hair – that finds them in a village in the woods. They’re happy all the time, but live with the memory of having escaped from a race of giants called the Bergens, essentially a city of Gargamels who look like a cross between The Boxtrolls’ villain and the Blue Meanies. (Here’s a confusion I had. Are the Bergens giants? Or are they our size and the Trolls are just doll-sized?) The entire story of this 90-minute feature involves a Bergen discovering the trolls and kidnapping most of them, leading the plucky Troll Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) to mount a rescue attempt. She recruits Branch (Justin Timberlake), the only sad Troll, to help her. It’s a real there-and-back-again, and would be over in 15 or 20 minutes flat were it not for the padding involving: simplistic emotional appeals, obvious lessons, an unlikely Bergen Cyrano/Cinderella-riffing romance, scattershot inanity, a variety of oddball road movie montages, and a whole host of jukebox covers. It’s colorful nothing.
The movie is a step back for DreamWorks, who have in the last several years pivoted away from a preponderance of snarky pop-culture saturated annoyances into some high-quality fantasy. From the relatively serious adventures – the How to Train Your Dragons – to slapstick silliness – Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Penguins of Madagascar – and those in between – the Kung Fu Pandas – the animation studio has been doing good work building worlds and experimenting in a variety of tones, styles, and moods. Here, though, we’re back with an overqualified and underutilized all-star cast (tiny voice roles for Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Gwen Stefani, John Cleese, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor, Ron Funches, Kunal Nayyar, Quvenzhané Wallis…) who pop in as barely characterized background players in a grindingly obvious plot. Is there any doubt the sad troll will learn to be happy again by journeying with an irrepressible optimist and saving their joyful kind? The trip is dusted with wacky humor, random nonsense – glittery flatulence, slangy punchlines, awkward innuendoes – and hectic movement.
So there’s not much to it. This is the sort of short movie that feels very long. But it’s not entirely unpleasant. Directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn (SpongeBob SquarePants) play around with the look of the picture in some appealing ways. The CG is used not to create the usual vaguely plastic look of so many big studio animations, but instead makes a look approximating yarn, felt, and scraps from a craft store reject pile. This gives it a faux-handcrafted texture as it spins out odd forest creatures: spindly spiders, giant mouths, floating eyes, ginormous snakes, and a talking cloud with arms, legs, and sneakers. Did I mention it’s all a bit of a trip? This is a kids’ movie so formulaically developed on a plot and thematic level that the only thing the filmmakers could think to keep the adults’ attention is randomness. It’s not inherently funny when these characters sing pop songs or say things like “Oh snap,” or when a Julia Child-looking Bergen chef appears to be performed in a Carol Burnett voice impersonation. But it’s enough to make the parents in the audience chuckle from the sheer unexpectedness. It is what it is.
Derivative and hackneyed in the extreme, it doesn’t try too hard to build a world or develop characters. It’s simply a bright-hued cartoony cast of toys now available at a store near you. This fits a movie more interested in look and design than in emotional underpinnings. When we finally learn why Branch is so sad all the time – his grandmother died because of singing – it sounds like a joke, complete with a cutaway flashback. But it plays out on the characters’ tearful reactions like we’re supposed to take this sentiment seriously. The movie’s both too randomized and too routine to settle on any one satisfying storytelling approach. It’s all about whatever erratic nonsense it can joke around with while cobbling together the expected kids’ movie beats. At least it’s enjoyable to look at some of the time, and for all its frazzled mania is never as grating as The Secret Life of Pets or actively hateful as Angry Birds. You could do a lot worse for kids’ entertainment this year, is what I’m saying. And maybe on this dark pre-election weekend, an insubstantial movie about dance parties and positive thinking melting away seemingly intractable disagreements is just the silly distraction we need.