Last night, like some kind of fucking idiot, I watched Trolls World Tour. It seemed like a not-terrible idea at the time, since, unlike many of my fellow critics, I had enjoyed the first Trolls, which came out back in 2016 when my son was 7; together, we saw that film more times than I can remember.
Colorful and psychedelic, sickly sweet but also often just plain sweet, that first movie, which gave Thomas Dam’s popular mid-century dolls an elaborately Hollywoodized (and only occasionally creepy) backstory and an eclectic, jukebox-musical soundtrack, had enough flashes of charm and genuine emotion to keep us interested. Plus Justin Timberlake sang that “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” song, which, back before it became annoyingly ubiquitous, briefly kind of ruled.
This time, with Universal sending critics review links that ominously didn’t go live until 9 p.m. E.T. on the night before the film “opened” digitally, I found myself in the rather odd situation of waiting for my son to go to bed so I could hunker down and watch a sequel to one of his favorite movies. I could probably have waited till the weekend, but I also thought it’d do me good to try and briefly relive some aspect of the Old Normal, to sit down and do a traditional review of a big studio release that was once supposed to open theatrically. I turned off the lights, got out my notebook and pen, and started scribbling as I watched. At one point, possibly as I wrote down the line of dialogue, “You may be Pop, and I may be Country, but trolls is trolls,” I remembered that life would never be the same again.
Trolls World Tour, it should be noted, opens with a troll sneezing in our faces, which is a hell of a way to begin a movie coming out during a plague, but I suppose editing that bit out would have compromised the artistic vision of the five credited screenwriters of Trolls World Tour. Pictures with lots of writers tend to be overstuffed, the stories a bit too ornate and clever for their own good, but Trolls World Tour is ruthlessly simple, rushed, and obvious. Our beloved trolls from the earlier film, led by the always-cheerful Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and her forlorn, anxious admirer Branch (Justin Timberlake), learn that they are not the only trolls in existence. Apparently, there are six different tribes, each identified by a musical genre. Poppy and Branch belong to the Pop trolls, but there are also Funk, Classical, Techno, Country, and Rock trolls. And the Rock trolls, led by the leather- and fishnet-clad Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), are intent on taking over the other tribes.
In the film’s first scene, we see the Rock trolls in their metal-studded and denim-wrapped war machines invading the land of the Techno trolls, belittling their music as “bleeps and bloops,” and then stealing the ancient magic string from which they derive their power; each tribe has one string, see, and once she has all six strings, Queen Barb will be able to play a power chord that will enslave the others. That’s right, Trolls World Tour is an anti-rockist variation on Avengers: Infinity War, only now Thanos has a guitar and is waging a jihad against synthesizers.
It’s also a race parable, sort of. The movie, true to its title, basically offers a tour through the other musical tribes, as Poppy and Branch travel to stop Queen Barb. Poppy, ever the poptimist, initially thinks they can simply befriend their nemesis, and goes on about how all trolls are the same. But as they trek through lands of Funk and Country — the latter of which features Kelly Clarkson as a big-haired country diva, one of the film’s high points — Poppy discovers that believing in their sameness is yet another form of oppression. “Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are,” she’s told by King Quincy and Queen Essence, the Funk troll monarchs of Vibe City voiced by George Clinton and Mary J. Blige. (But what to make then of the film’s ruthless bounty-hunter trolls, who come from such supposedly renegade subgenres as Smooth Jazz, Reggaeton, K-Pop, and Yodeling? I can already hear the angry think pieces being written.)
Rushed but lifeless, Trolls World Tour feels like a grab bag of merchandising ideas — more trolls, more songs, less story — which wouldn’t be such a crime if the film allowed itself to have any real fun with its concept. The music, most of it covers of already absurdly familiar hits (the Rock trolls sing the likes of “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “Barracuda,” and “Crazy Train” as they go about their conquests), hovers between earnest imitation and wild pastiche, and I wish it had leaned toward the latter — more Moulin Rouge!, less wedding-reception cover band. There are also lively bits of am-I-high-right-now surrealism — at one point, a character splits in two and reveals themselves to be two yodeling bounty hunters in disguise — but they’re too few and far between for a movie without much else to keep us going. In the absence of inspiration, Trolls World Tour offers little more than speedy delivery, predictable world-building, and dutiful karaoke. Do I regret watching it? Possibly. Will I watch it again this weekend? Probably.