From “True Colors” to “I’m Coming Out” to the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn’s Trolls goes all in on being a jukebox musical. If otherworldly creatures belting out pop hits makes you nervous (perhaps you’re still flashing back on Strange Magic, shudder to think), you might find yourself nonplussed in the theater. These songs, it turns out, are the best parts of the movie. It’s everything else that’s wrong.
The Trolls, based on the dolls with the hair, live carefree in a blissful, wooded community, having years hence escaped lives of captivity under the rule of the giant, grumpy Bergens. When they are again discovered and a (literal) handful of them are taken, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) teams up with Bergen expert and sullen outcast Branch (Justin Timberlake) to mount a rescue mission.
Trolls‘ attempts at humor are like the last ten years’ worth of sitcoms copied down to the umpteenth generation until the jokes have become thin and hollow echoes. Jokes, in fact, is too strong a word. In place of humor or comedic characters, our protagonists affect a sort of weary smarm, reacting to one another with long pauses and stares or with a curt, dismissive, “That’s weird.” Perhaps that’s preferable, though, to the Trolls‘ other mode, which panders to the young audience of a few years ago, when the movie was likely written, by having characters shout things like “OMG!” or, most embarrassingly, “YOLO!”
However, when this patience-trying dialogue goes away for a few minutes, a seemingly entirely different film emerges. The musical numbers (as well as the occasional action or chase sequence) are whimsical, unpredictable delights. Poppy’s journey to Bergentown, for instance, is told over the course of a single song but in a montage that gives us a tour of the varied and interesting locales of this fantasy realm. Most of these dreamy song segments remove us from the physical world of the film, inventively employing a felt and paper visual motif that recalls Poppy’s scrapbooking hobby.
Poppy’s arts and crafts are just a taste of the many pleasures the Trolls find in their world. Bergens, on the other hand, can only feel happy by eating Trolls, or so we’re told. Eventually, we arrive at the thematic point of the film, wherein we learn that happiness is not something you put inside yourself. It’s already there and you just need to bring it out. It’s a surprisingly and unconvincingly anti-consumerist message for a movie based on toys.
Trolls might be worth a dollar or two at the Redbox where you can just skip ahead to the music and action vignettes that bring it to life. When it comes to characters, story and personality, though, the movie’s as thin as a wisp of brightly colored hair.