A movie about Troll Dolls is almost comically cynical. Take a product line that has lost its luster, repackage it to the next generation, laugh all the way to the bank. It’s the textbook definition of a cold, calculated, brand-driven cash grab. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is exactly what people said about “The LEGO Movie” before it came out. Then that movie turned out to be awesome, and the nation ate a fair amount of crow.
“Trolls” is no “LEGO Movie,” but there is something to it, a relentlessness of spirit that is undeniable. It has a stunningly unique visual style, the musical numbers are a deftly chosen blend of big pop hits and lesser-known but worthy songs (all selected by co-star Justin Timberlake), and the voice casting is sublime. The ‘B’ story could have used some work (it’s a Disney princess story, almost verbatim), and it ultimately lacks the courage of its early convictions, but it is still a wildly entertaining movie.
The trolls are impossibly happy, follically-blessed creatures who live in a tree in the middle of a village of Bergens, miserable folk whose only joy comes from eating a troll, and the eating of a troll becomes a Bergen holiday. On one of these holidays, the trolls escape, and for 20 years, they live a blissful, hug-filled existence. The new Bergen king (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has been told his entire life that he will never be happy until he eats a troll, so when the disgraced Chef (Christine Baranski), who’s been cast out of Bergentown after the trolls’ great escape happened on her watch, finds the trolls’ hiding place and snatches several trolls to offer to the king, he is more than eager to restart the long-abandoned tradition of eating a troll. Troll Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) sets out to save her kidnapped friends, with reluctant assistance from sullen troll Branch (Timberlake).
I had an interesting chat with Fat Guys at the Movies film critic Kevin Carr about this movie afterwards. He saw the trolls as an awkward metaphor for prescription drugs for clinical depression, making them walking, talking happy pills. That’s an interesting idea, but considering the movie’s ultimate message, that happiness is inside all of us, and sometimes it takes the right person to find it, that seems a little tone-deaf, especially when you consider that the underwritten ‘B’ story explores the other ways that the king finds happiness outside of eating a troll, and they have everything to do with human interaction, and nothing to do with pill popping.
Instead, I’d like to propose an alternate theory, which is that the trolls represent meat, and we are the Bergens. The Bergens never look at the trolls as living things – they just look at them as something that makes them happy once they’re consumed, and they only think that way because they’ve been raised to do so (Mintz-Plasse learns this from his father, in a cameo that’s too good to spoil). That sounds like a vegetarian war cry if ever there was one, and to nail the point home, the one thing Princess Poppy has with her at all times…is a cowbell. The cowbell is used purely in a musical manner, but still, moo.
Either way, “Trolls” has a chance to make this point clearer in the third act, but for whatever reason doesn’t commit. They choose an easier way out, even though that way comes with a lot of explaining (why, again, do the joyless Bergens have a roller rink?), and yet the movie is able to easily overcome this thanks to spot-on performances by the cast (Timberlake is shockingly good at playing a sourpuss) and the variety of animation styles. DreamWorks has rarely dared to challenge Pixar on an intellectual level, and “Trolls” is no exception, but in terms of box office, this movie is going to print money.(3 / 5)
This review originally ran November 3, 2016 on Bullz-Eye.com.