Cast: (voiced by) Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Anderson Paak, Sam Rockwell, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige
Director: Walt Dohrn
Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Elizabeth Tippet, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky
We live in strange times. While most of the major studios have uniformly decided to push back the blockbusters and other flicks that had been slated for the spring and summer until this pandemic eventually passes, Universal has gone ahead with the release of the sequel to their 2016 animated musical hit onto digital platforms. Thus it has come to pass that a movie about singing, cartoon trolls may well determine the future of cinema. Whether the film finds success on its own merits or simply on the basis that there are no other new films to compete against it in its effort to attract bored, cooped-up families in need of distraction, Trolls World Tour looks set to become a turning point in deciding what shape the cinematic experience will take in a post-COVID-19 world. Universal is already talking about continuing their use of VOD platforms as a point of distribution for new titles even after theatres reopen and, with Disney having already launched a streaming service exclusively for their own content, it may not be long before the other major studios follow suit. With exhibitors already struggling to compete in a world where most audience members will pay maybe half a dozen visits to the cinema in a given year, the loss of their exclusive screening rights could prove disastrous. However the likelihood and ramifications of such an outcome go far beyond the scope of this review (not to mention the expertise of its writer) so on to the family-friendly jukebox musical about dolls from the eighties.
Following a film that offered garishly bright colours, ineffably surreal designs, an irrepressibly catchy song, and very little else (which, don’t get me wrong, may very well be your jam), Trolls World Tour takes what bright-eyed kids and high-as-kites adults enjoyed about the first and expands on them. More trolls! More music! More psychedelically bizarre imagery! Also, recognising that the Trolls vs. Bergens conflict from the previous film is done and that to revive it would be as lazy as it would be derivative, World Tour takes the mythology of the Troll-Verse in a new direction. This time it’s all about the Infinity Strings (they probably have a different name for them in the film). These are the multi-coloured music strings which each represent a different genre of music and collectively are the source of all things musical. The six genres now make up the six separate Troll kingdoms: Pop, Rock, Funk, Techno, Classical, and Country. These realms all find themselves in crisis as Queen Barb of the Rock Trolls launches a guitar-screeching crusade to collect the six strings and harness their power to make rock and roll the one true genre. When Poppy, Queen of the Pop Trolls, catches wind of this nefarious plot, she sets out to befriend the rocker queen and instil upon her the cheerful and vibrant virtues of pop music. As she learns more about the other kingdoms and their shared histories though, she soon finds herself out of her depth.
Poppy sets out on this journey along with her unrequited admirer Branch and together they travel through the different Troll kingdoms where they’re exposed to unfamiliar genres. As they enter the land of country, the upbeat, ready to party trolls are met with a melancholic country ballad sung by Kelly Clarkson. Over in the land of funk they discover a realm of groovy beats presided over by George Clinton and Mary J. Blige. Meanwhile Barb, voiced by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star and creator Rachel Bloom, charges full speed ahead on her blitzkrieg while singing such rock classics as ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Crazy Train’ (indeed, Ozzy Osbourne even voices her father). On one level, this is a pretty neat way for the film to introduce some its younger viewers to songs and genres that may not yet be on their radar. On another, it’s a rather interesting way of exploring what’s by this point a very well-worn theme in children’s stories about harmony, diversity and acceptance. Barb, who (like most teens who’ve just discovered Led Zeppelin) firmly believes that rock is the only music worth a damn, and Poppy, who believes every bit as strongly that all trolls are fundamentally the same, are both made to learn that uniformity is not unity. Bringing people together means more than recognising their similarities, it’s also about accepting and embracing their differences.
On the musical side of things, the film makes a creditable effort to incorporate a wide range of genres and influences and to treat them with due respect. Under the supervision of Justin Timberlake, who as well as reprising the role of Branch is credited as an Executive Music Producer, we’re treated to a history lesson told in the jazzy soul style of psychedelic funk, Sam Rockwell singing a cover of Patsy Cline’s ‘I Fall to Pieces’, and K-Pop girl group who are allowed to perform in their native language. There’s even an acknowledgement made of pop music’s legacy of cultural appropriation and domination. Still it feels like the movie could and should have gone even further; while many of the covers are well produced, they still sound more like karaoke imitations than they do certified tributes. If the film lent itself more to stylisation and experimentation the way that Moulin Rouge did (or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that never made two songs sound the same if it could help it), those covers could have risen beyond their states of serviceable needle drops to be spectacular showcases. While it does help to have genuinely good singers like Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake and Rachel Bloom on hand for the vocals, an over-reliance on these three and a reluctance to really push the level of musical variety as far as it can go means that the film is left wanting for a more distinctive personality.
Similarly the movie’s visual style takes on an efficiently bright and colourful but otherwise mild state. There are fleeting moments of inspired surrealism such as when a four-legged troll splits into two to reveal he is actually two smaller trolls in disguise or when a baby troll bares its razor-sharp teeth, which spin viciously in its mouth like a sink’s garbage disposal, but they are few and far in between. Mostly the film sticks to a visual palette of bubble-gum and glitter and sight gags that we saw in the first film like a troll pooping out a birthday cake and the antics of the little squeaky worm that the James Corden troll carries around. That’ll be enough for the film’s core demographic, but the mileage for the outliers will vary depending on how much interest they have in exploring a world that has been designed from the ground up as a stage for pop songs and celebrity cameos. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with such a premise, especially not when broad appeal and dutiful distraction are the desired qualities of your archetypal family in quarantine. There is however ample room for such films to be cleverer and more creative than Trolls World Tour is. But then again I can also think of worse movies for the family to watch together, especially when there’s little else for them to do.