You can exhale. “Trolls” is no “Smurfs,” in fact; it aligns more with the heart of “How to Train Your Dragon” or “Kung Fu Panda.”
Since the dawn of the Jeffrey Katzenberg era, DreamWorks Animation has turned over not only a mouthwatering profit but a formidable domain of original, compelling stories. Keyword: compelling. Is “Trolls” genuinely funny? Absolutely. You actually laugh not out of pity for a flat joke but because, man that little Troll with the big, blank eyes is a riot. DreamWorks is known to deliver consistent, quality chuckles in that department.
But above laughs, there is a clever, touching story in this intellectual property’s film debut.
Thomas Dam’s famous Troll dolls are already well-known thanks to 90s Christmas catalogs and Toys R Us. However, unlike “Smurfs,” those Trolls never had a backstory. The classic, weirdly cutesy naked dolls with the brushable, loveable hair existed without an absolute narrative. DreamWorks acquired the rights to the Troll franchise and all of its intellectual property in 2013.
In director Mike Mitchell’s (“Shrek Forever After,” “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water”) reimagining, the Trolls are cuter and the annual dish for the almost terrifying Bergens in Bergen Town. I say almost terrifying implying I was scared not only for the trolls but also the dominant demographic in the theater.
The Bergens are the counterpart to the happy, hyper, invincible positive trolls who fear Bergens and their holiday, Trollstice, where trolls are cooked and consumed as the only way to experience true happiness. With their large, hunched over bodies, pointy ears and menacing eyes, the Bergens are a tad frightening in that creepy, 3D-computer-animation manner. Some darker moments summoned at least three faint cries from younger audience members.
Thankfully, Mitchell and his creative team carefully balance the unsettling characteristics of the “adult” Bergens like the scheming chef (Christine Baranski, blessed with that smoldering yet threatening typecast) with the childish demeanor of two main Bergens, Prince Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his secret admirer Bridget (Zooey Deschanel). They are what designers call “ugly-cute,” meaning children will see them as the gentler breed of Bergen and stay engaged through the non-Troll moments.
Now the Trolls, they are a perky bunch of plush plucked from the chorus a feel-good song. Kendrick’s voice shimmers with smiley emojis and good intentions, filling Poppy’s pink body with engaging optimism. Poppy’s happiness and determination to preserve it compliment the wisecracking, pessimistic Branch, a survivalist Troll whose vibrant colors faded when he was young. He explains his downbeat mentality later in the film with a bizarrely tear-jerking flashback slightly reminiscent of the “Toy Story 2” “When She Loved Me” sequence, except here we get baby Branch belting “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Timberlake, like Kendrick, is a hoot, and their pairing supports the film’s soul.
From the beginning, we are told the Trolls love to do three things: sing, dance, and hug. Hugging is an hourly ritual meant to celebrate the Trolls’ legendary escape from the Bergens under the reign of King Peppy. This is where the story starts. The Trolls lived happily in the troll tree in the center of Bergen Town until they finally got fed up (no pun intended) with Trollstice. In an urgent exodus, the Trolls find a new home far away from the sight or smell of any Bergen. The Bergens’ misery is enhanced by the departure of the Trolls, because without any Trolls to eat, they believe happiness is now impossible.
A surprisingly profound theme emerges from this conflict: how to acquire happiness within oneself as opposed to relying on outside substance. “Trolls” tends to its quick-witted quips, establishing the Trolls’ crazy hair extensions and body-based gags as typical Troll traits and not cheap, “sounded good at the time” crutches for a family comedy. The adults, myself included, got a kick out of Gristle and Bridget’s roller-skate-pizza date.
Throughout the film, a refreshing and rhythmic pacing is maintained, and that’s the reason this scene soars instead of falling flat its face in the roller rink. The film is also categorized as a musical, something that adds to the sprit of the Trolls and the longings of the Bergens. Timberlake even served as executive music producer for the film and contributes to the soundtrack along with Ariana Grande and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Too often I enter a theater with bottom-of-the-bowl expectations. What a relief “Trolls” made me laugh, think, and even shed a tear. Children will love it, and probably beg for a Poppy Troll doll. Adults will be pleased knowing they are also invited to Poppy’s party.
Written by Emilie Kefalas.