Dreamworks’ Trolls had no right to be this good. By every measure, it should have been terrible. Instead, we got an exercise in trolling: Dreamworks made a Disney Renaissance movie, beat by beat, and I loved it. Great visuals, fantastic music (d0n’t trust the trailers, Silento did not make the final cut) and a dash of good writing. But this is all beside the point.
The state of Dreamworks
Non-rethorical question: Are there any honest to God Dreamworks fans?
I’m a Dreamworks defender to the extent that they can produce phenomenal work when they deign to. But it’s not easy.
From the Holy Trinity of mainstream American animation, Dreamworks is the least interested in committing to a vision that isn’t exclusively corporate-driven.
Even though Disney is mostly remembered for fairy tales/princess movies (which Shrek and later Trolls built their gimmicks upon), their history is more diverse. They’ve changed the style and tone of their films at different periods to suit a specific interest.
By contrast, Dreamworks’ history plays out like a game of roulette. Their very first entries were some A Bug’s Life knock-off that flew past me and Prince of Egypt. That disparity in quality between their films is one of the studio’s defining traits (besides that damned smirk).
Since Dreamworks has perfected the art of making their trailers as horrible and grating as possible, you can never be sure that you’ll walk into a committed project (your How to Train Your Dragons and your Kung Fu Pandas) or the fare of memes and shitposts (your Shreks and Bee Movies).
I bring this little history up because Trolls is dead-set on bringing the best and the worst of all these facets. It is the most Dreamworks movie that ever dreamworked.
The magical plot
As with most fairytales, there are two kingdoms in conflict.
The Trolls (based on the damn dolls, not the assholes on the Internet) are cuddly creatures who live for singing, dancing and hugging (okay).
The Bergens are Shrek-lite creatures who can’t sing or dance and live their days in misery. Because they never watched Inside Out, they believe they can only be happy if they eat a troll to digest its radiance (okay).
Suddenly, one fateful dance party, several trolls are caught by Chef (Christine Baranski), the Bergen’s royal chef who was banished because the food ran off. It’s up to Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and the disgruntled outcast Branch (Justin Timberlake) to rescue them.
Trolls is clearly aiming at preschool and primary kids. I certainly don’t mean that as a bad thing, nor imply that adults can’t enjoy it, it’s just targeting a younger crowd than the studio’s usual fare. This makes the PG rating all the more baffling.
The most risque thing I could find was the casting of Kunal Nayyar, from The Big Bang Theory, as the nudist troll covered in glitter. He barely had any lines. This is just an example of how far Dreamworks outdid themselves in securing that star power, even for the bit roles.
More emphatically, the script hits all the essentials of the trademark Disney Renaissance movie.
- An “unlikely” love story between characters in different social classes? Check and check.
- A resentful villain who wants to use their influence in court to seize power? Check.
- A musical? Check.
Moreover, an upbeat teenager moves into a small community where dancing and singing are against the rules and brings the groove in. Sounds familiar?
Of course it is: They aped the premise of “The Headband”, one of Avatar’s most underrated episodes.
The biggest strength and weakness of Trolls is being a cliché storm. It hits every mark found in mainstream animation. However, it’s a derivative film borne out of affection.
While Shrek’s deconstruction of fairy tales could be clever, the feud between Katzenberg and Eisner makes the whole thing feel like a glorified catfight (Waking Sleeping Beauty gives a fuller account of this).
Shrek aped from Disney to rub it in its face; Trolls aped from Disney because it respects the formula and the spectacle. In fact, it captures it too well.
In terms of the writing, neither the story, nor the characters, are particularly fleshed out.
It tries to bring some depth by noting that “the world isn’t all fairy tales”, but that’s been done better before and it’s conveyed more as an afterthought than an actual theme.
But because the archetypes are so familiar, the film is remarkably good at setting things economically. The story is tightly paced and every scene flows naturally from the last.
Of all the things I look for in children’s films, efficiency isn’t high on that list. Quantifying films for character types and story beats would be more fitting for a parody. Yet Trolls makes it seem praiseworthy.
The script is written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, the duo behind the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. They are very good at taking tropes and clichés and breathing new life to them. To such a point that the Chinese were seriously debating if America was making better movies about them. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
It comes across as a masterclass of Disney films for executives, with Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick.
Speaking of them, they’re used to great effect. Kendrick’s highlight is probably “Get Back Up Again” which has delightfully trippy and insane animation. It fully exploits the saccharinne, surreal environment of the trolls’ world and is just fun.
Timberlake plays Branch, the lone, bitter jerk who hates music and looks on his society with desdain from within a bunker (a modern day troll).
His reason for hating music is a perfect course of narm and cheese and I won’t give it away. But I’d be hardly spoiling if I said he gets better. Dreamworks cast Justin Timberlake, of course he’ll sing.
However, his main number (“True Colours”) is played as a quiet, intimate moment rather than the bombastic dance Dreamworks favours.
The movie is worth the ticket for that moment: It’s delightful. That’s why I say Trolls captures all these facets. It can execute a fairly by-the-numbers beat with astonishing grace.
Also, I’d like to gush about the character design. It’s hideous.
Look at those textures. They’re ugly and unapologetic about it. Even the troll world that’s supposed to be cute is ugly-cute at best.
Trolls entirely avoids the beauty vs. ugliness debate. Even Bridget’s love for the new King Gristle is framed more by class than by physical appeal
(Also, Bridget was played by Zoey Deschanel and I didn’t recognize her. That’s a very good sign).
Will Dreamworks dethrone Disney?
If we’re talking about the Disney Animated Canon, not a chance.
With Zootopia under their belts and Moana around the corner, Disney has some prosperous days ahead.
But if we’re talking about Disney’s other venues, well that’s a different story.
I have no doubt that 2017’s Beauty and the Beast will be a success. In regard to its cast and production, it at least feels like it’s coming from people who respect the original movie and want to do it justice.
But then there’s putting in the context of constant remakes, with the expectation of Mulan and The Lion King joining their ranks. It gets boring and it’s not stimulating to watching the movie, however good it might be.
Just to be clear, Dreamworks isn’t exactly shy from corporate merchandising. Before this review, I had no idea that Shrek 5 was in the works and I’d been happier without knowing.
But there’s a difference between watching the same tropes in different stories and watching the same story in different flavours. Given Dreamworks’ history, it’s easy to see this film as a calculated attempt to prey in on the same Disney Renaissance nostalgia that Disney itself wants to reignite. And it’s really good at it.
I really prefer an animated movie that takes some risks with design and music over a rethread.
It’s very much like The Force Awakens: You know they’re telling the same story you’ve seen before, they’re not even hiding the man with a curtain, yet you can’t help but admire the man’s performance.
I’m actually worried that I may have oversold Trolls in many aspects, so I’m willing to rewatch it just to test my initial reaction to it. If Dreamworks can drag me to watch a movie, even one of their lesser entries, twice in the theaters, they’ve done something right.