There’s a trick with Trolls Band Together. What the new DreamWorks movie values is not what you would expect — it’s not about the celebration of boy bands, the thin plot, or the characters — the animators have made a confectionary musical where the sugar high of the visual layer is the only thing that can be processed by the brain. Everything else dissolves on contact like cotton candy, you don’t even quite know what you’ve experienced, and it’s gone.
Against all odds the animation is experimental. It is satisfying in a tactile way and not just glittered-up and hyper-colored, but made out of pleasing textures. It is a good-looking way to expand beyond the Trolls house brand, as the studio liberally flexes new techniques for new characters and situations. Some characters are built up of felt or fabric, objects in the world seem to be made to satisfy sensory-sensitive viewers, and there is more than tactility to the design, as the animators play with proportions and feature placement, and create new shapes and sizes for the characters in this world. Even the format is more fluid, as a Hustle Button is introduced in-story, which changes the total dimension of the art style, and the movie is great fun in these fleeting moments of ambition.
There seems to be, at least, an impetus from within DreamWorks, to redefine themselves and create new ideas. They are not relaxing into old house styles, which for their non-2D works, resemble cheesy early-computer animations. It doesn’t play well anymore and audiences want to see the craft of the people making the movies up on the screen.
It’s important to bring all of this up now, as DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg has been out in the news saying how AI will cut animation production time and labor by 90%, and in a world where such comments are made, new animations will have to show the vitality of their design team to create new things that exist outside their formulas and prove that the ingenuity of artists is why anyone cares about watching animated films. We’ve watched as Warner Bros. has written off two of their recent high-profile IP-driven animated films for mere tax returns, so nothing feels very safe right now, and any risks taken feel like a fight for having artists make movies.
Amid this time of rethinking the next steps for computer animation, the new Trolls will not make a dent in the conversation, arriving after one of DreamWork’s most accomplished efforts, last year’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which is a stunning film that can balance style, story, and character in equal measure. Trolls Band Together gets off to an odd start, side-lining characters from the past two films, which have been about including everyone, and reshaping the story to resemble a flimsy getting the band back together movie about boy bands.
The movie has one idea about how to approach all of this, pushing Justin Timberlake’s Branch character to the center of the story. He was the youngest in a band of brothers and now he must undergo a quest to get the band back together, as one of the brothers has been kidnapped and is being expunged of his soul and voice to enhance the singing of an intergalactic pop duo of Velvet (Amy Schumer) and Veneer (Andrew Rannells). So, we move through different song-featuring environments with Branch and now-girlfriend Poppy (Anna Kendrick) in tow.
That’s how it went in the last Trolls movie, too, which was about the Queen of Rock trying to overthrow all other genres of music, uniting them under the Rock umbrella. That allowed a bit more flexibility than this tour through boy band standards, which is joyous maybe only for a certain kind of person who finds Justin Timberlake singing all the boy band catalogs to be an interesting trick in 2023. To me, it feels very late for that, while not reflecting the rapid changes in boy band culture, which is now so much more multi-cultural and does not feel limited by what is playing on MTV.
The funny thing about doing this is that there are already a couple of movies like and about this in pop music. During the height of this scene, MTV even created their own fictional boy band called 2gether, and made a movie about putting the band together, even more famously, the Spice Girls and their movie Spice World (1997), already detailed their commercial construction and how a girl group would come together. Those are still fun time capsules, which Trolls Band Together is clearly referencing and pulling back from.
The music scene of the ’90s, while among Rockists, has such a distinct sound and important bands, the actual charts were defined by pop sensations. It wasn’t a whole decade of Nirvana. That was just a couple of good years. Even at that time, what was charting were acts like Boyz II Men who were mega-dominant in the early-’90s billboard charts. That’s not to say that what charted wasn’t good or doesn’t hold up, but the popular stuff, feels like a product of the time. Maybe we should do a bit of canonizing while we’re here.
The five greatest boy band songs of the ’90s are as follows:
- Boyz II Men – “End of the Road”
- New Kids on the Block – “Step by Step”
- Backstreet Boys – “I Want It That Way”
- Hanson – “Mmmbop”
- Take That – “Back for Good”
What becomes clear as ’90s music develops is that what is popular can be broken into mathematical formulas. You can begin with the soulful pop acts of the early decade but eventually, you’re going to have record executives construct groups of look-alike musicians to compete with each other. The competition will be created by the studios and the songs will exist along mathematical formulas. That’s how the songs of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNCs of the world were written, and that’s just how it is.
Interestingly, Trolls Band Together feels like Justin Timberlake’s return to this stuff. The movie doesn’t make much of that. Eventually, it does surmise in NSYNC reuniting, which will be something for a certain kind of fan of that music, but it does not especially mean anything in the movie. Every story layer is shrugged off like that, just written into a corner and then forced by sheer will of momentum to move on to the next thing.
As a jukebox musical, Trolls Band Together lacks variety most of all. The song cuts are not as deep or pleasurable as the prior entries. They are more strictly obvious. When you go to a sun-soaked island, you will hear Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” when characters push the Hustle Button, you’ll hear Van McCoy’s “Do the Hustle,” pretty much everything you expect to happen, does happen.
This is where we ultimately end up here, with a movie that lacks any real surprises. Sure, there’s some tactility in the animation style and this is an interesting phase of work for DreamWorks, as we face down the looming threats of AI and general industry consolidation, but what else is there? An animated film cannot just be passingly pleasing. Good animation looks good. Great animation ties everything back together in some cohesive way, means something more for the story, and tells you about the themes and motifs, and what the characters are about. Trolls Band Together is just a bit of pop confectionery.
This is storytelling that is as algorithmic as ’90s pop music sounded. If artists can put their hearts into the animation of their works, why not the stories they tell? There is still potential for a good Trolls movie, a jukebox musical that encompasses a focused slice of one thing and tells a story about inclusion within that space, but this is another near-miss.