Parents beware: Trolls World Tour is the same movie with new songs. It’s still vomitously colorful, itself a confectionary, dissolving like cotton candy in the mouth, like nothing was ever there at all. It’s a case of The Mores. More songs across more genres. Five writers. Two directors. A robust voice cast to decorate the posters. The premise is that there is more to the world. There are more sects of Trolls living in tightly confined genre-specific societies. They do not have the choice of free will but are subject to the torment of their governed genre of choice. The premise remains the same: to celebrate and love each other’s differences, to be inclusive, no matter how many more differences there are. It has not blown up the box or gone outside it, but it fits in a bigger box, now exclusively on a smaller screen.
I like to exploit my three-year-old as a barometer for taste in animated films. She sees what I do not, experiences the thing as it’s given, with only a capacity for honesty. When we went to watch World Tour a second time, she stopped me. She asked for, “the first Trolls, not the Angry Trolls.” The association is set. The group of Rock Trolls are now the “Angry Trolls,” and the direct object of her ire. This, after many months of introducing great Rock acts, all that careful parenting and Van Halen in the car, undone in seconds. Her gleeful cheers of “Rock & Roll!” now confused with an idea it is an Angry kind of music; one that does not accept other genres and is rooted in defiance. This is probably the worst parenting outcome a children’s movie has given us. Bonus points for the Ozzy Osbourne cameo from me, but none from her.
It makes for a cute story — there are six kingdoms of Trolls: Pop; Rock; Funk; Classical; Tech; and Country. All well and good. It focuses less on individual songs as a consequence. Somehow, it fits 39 tracks into the 94 minute runtime. The first Trolls was Oscar-nominated for the wonderful pop song “I Can’t Stop This Feeling.” This one does not have any true bangers but finds steadier beats. There is so little of each sampled song that none really firm up a distinct identity. It’s all curious, no verse. It latches onto the feeling of the thing. Perhaps it’s best to think of the second film as a kind of music visualizer with an incidental plot.
There are two widely varying outcomes here. Trolls may not repeat at the Oscars or it’ll be handsomely rewarded. Oddly enough, the release method has made it an important cinematic experiment. Universal has eschewed their theater plans altogether and gone all-in on digital release. The success of this film may determine the course of movie releases for the remainder of the year. If it does gangbusters, why not open up the floodgates, especially on animated films, as Trolls is doing a great public service (nuisance that it is) for parents stuck in at home? There is the alternative outcome too: it does badly, nobody follows suit, it does not meet the ridiculous theater criteria at the Oscars. Whatever the outcome, it’s worth noting, and encouraging the studio’s willingness to play outside the system — they are the true trolls.
Doing the same thing again ought to dilute the brand. It really hasn’t. Once only known as pencil toppers and toys with odd hairdos, the Trolls brand has never been stronger. World Tour is a big exercise in children’s branding. It is very good at selling an image. It is offensively bright and candy colored. It is filled with optimistic songs but only their hooks. It’s cheerfully exuberant and occasionally really funny. There’s a great saxophone bit featuring a Funk Troll, where the main characters really trip out from feeling the jazzy groove. Their faces melt in a delightful nightmare, they become pieces of sushi, which they lovingly feed one another. They sit on a beach and a hairy human leg (just the leg) comes and refills their drink. It’s a hilarious moment that sells the movie.
The subplot is very Frozen 2 (2019). Branch (Justin Timberlake) must tell Poppy (Anna Kendrick) that he loves her but always fumbles over those words. Their relationship is pretty one-note and undeveloped. These main characters are also moved off-frame. They have to make way for some many genres and bit-part characters now that they rarely are the subject of the songs themselves anymore. It’s almost like their journey is an aside to worldbuilding. At least structurally, it’s pretty clean and delineates well between visual theme and the aesthetic sense of the music it’s showcasing. If only it were more focused and had less songs, it could have really hooked onto something memorable. Instead, the big takeaway moments involve some of the cutely crafted original score — I’m partial to Theodore Shapiro’s “Heartbeatbox,” which makes up a nice moment of musical evolution interlinking styles and the development across genres.
A noble experiment in film releasing, Trolls World Tour has borrowed more status than it has earned. Everyone will be watching it with widened eyes. It is the best of results for the mediocre animated film with good moments. While it does poison our children’s minds against ever experiencing the love and ecstasy of Rock & Roll, there’s just enough here. It is ultimately a good thing that a movie like Trolls gets used for the Great Home Video Experiment of 2020. However it goes, it likely makes more sense to wait, and buy it for about the same price, to own. As my daughter says, watch the “Happy Trolls, not the Angry Trolls.”