Trolls World Tour takes the premise of Avengers: Infinity War, the world building of The Lego Movie, adds Hollywood Family Animation 101 themes about staying true to yourself while compromising enough to function in a diverse society, and calls it a day. It’s not as grotesque and convoluted as the first Trolls, and it does offer a simple, streamlined plot that the very young target audience can easily follow while being distracted by the acid-flashback-color-explosion aesthetic, but don’t expect anything remotely resembling a fresh and inventive sequel. (Granted, “Better than Trolls” is a fairly low bar to reach.)
The plot works as sort of a soft reboot for the franchise. There are barely any references to the events from the first Trolls, and any recap that’s necessary for newcomers to grasp the ins and outs of the exuberant, saccharine, jukebox-musical-on-crack land of these living and breathing ’90s toys is handled with blink-and-you’ll-miss voice-over exposition. This cold open, and all the other backstory elements, are expressed via 2D animated jeans patches, which provides the film’s only unique and engaging artistic choice, while working as welcome respite from the plastic and overeager 3D animation.
This time around, eager-to-please Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is now the queen of the troll land. To her shock, she discovers that there are five other troll tribes that represent various genres of music: classical, country, rock, funk and techno. In case you didn’t realize it from the bubblegum overload “Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun” musical medley that reintroduces us to this world, it turns out that Poppy’s tribe represents the pop genre.
Once upon a time, the tribes lived together in harmony, each represented by different colored strings on a lyre. But when the tribes couldn’t bear listening to each other’s music, they all decided to take their strings and live separately in their own literal patches of land. Barb (Rachel Bloom) is the rock queen who’s desperate to indoctrinate all trolls to worship a watered-down-for-seven-year-olds mix of Black Sabbath and ’80s hair metal. So her and her family-friendly Fury Road gang embarks upon a mission to steal all the “infinity” strings, install them on Barb’s “infinity” guitar, and use its power to turn everyone into rock zombies. Poppy doesn’t have a choice but to grab her trusty friend-zoned sidekick Branch (Justin Timberlake) and go on a perilous journey to stop Barb’s dastardly plans.
As a lifelong metalhead, I take umbrage at the decision to make the hard rock tribe the antagonists who wants to force everyone to listen to their music. Hard rock and metal, especially the ’70s and ’80s output that’s heavily referenced in the film, are rebellious and singular genres by nature, and are as far as you can get from mainstream cross-pollination. If there’s one genre that aims to force its benign, corporate notes down people’s throats, it’s pop, but of course having Poppy turn out to be her own story’s villain would be asking for too much nuance from Trolls World Tour. (There is a hint of a thematic twist about pop being overwhelming with its desire to please everyone, but it’s vastly underdeveloped to make a blip.)
The narrative structure of the second act lays out a series of episodic sequences where Poppy and Branch travel from one land to another, trying to get as much information about Barb’s next moves as possible, while helping each world heal from the depression of missing their precious strings. Of course the main reason for these travels is to showcase the various styles attributed to the tribes. Some are bland, like the classical world’s cliché-ridden imagery. Some are clever, like the country world inhabited by centaur trolls. But in the end, there isn’t enough plot or character development that would convince the audience not to fast forward to the third act for Poppy and Barb’s big showdown. Will the power of the strings force everyone to love the same music, or was our music in our hearts all along? If you’ve seen even a handful of such family adventures, especially those geared towards very young children, you already know the answer.
Serendipitously, Trolls World Tour’s forced release into the home VOD market after the theatrical run was cancelled due to COVID-19 might be its saving grace. It’s nowhere near worth a $40+ family trip to the nearest multiplex, but as a cheap TV timewaster for parents to enjoy a 90-minute break from their toddler-to-second-grader children, it can get the job done in the most basic level possible. As far as greedy movie franchises trying to squeeze every last drop of money out of a popular toyline are concerned, the sheer ingenuity of The Lego Movie was lightning in a bottle. It’s greedy of us to expect another one, so the mediocrity of Trolls World Tour is par for the course.
Director: Walt Dohrn, David P. Smith
Writer: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Elizabeth Tippet
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell
Release Date: April 10, 2020
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.