“Trolls” opens according to the DreamWorks Studio gold standard: with a storybook, and a paradise lost. In this strange, magical world, boisterous little trolls spend their lives in obliviously overwhelming happiness. But their joy cannot last; the narrator swiftly introduces a mortal enemy, the Bergens, who cage the Trolls in their tree and Eden becomes a debased hell.
And so, year in and year out, the populace of Bergen Town gathers for a cookout-festival for a single purpose: to experience real, unalloyed joy. The city’s prince, Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), awaits this blessed day with an eagerness known only to children. To taste a Troll is to touch bliss, and Gristle wishes to eat his first. Tragically, Gristle’s hopes are dashed by a clandestine Troll escape, a prison-break complete with a tunnel system and replacement dummies left on the surface.
All this hubbub occurs in the course of minutes, and the narrative flashes forward to the Trolls in their new home, a hidden forest clearing with “great acoustics” — King Peppy’s (Jeffrey Tambor) main selling point for the location. Rare is the film that presents its heroes as utter fools; the blissfully ignorant Trolls are the architects of their own destruction, and it is difficult to summon much empathy for their gleefully boisterous escapes and the inevitable fallout.
As it is, children’s films are primarily didactic — DreamWorks’ most famous offering, “Shrek,” presents a scowly protagonist who comes to gentleness and friendship — but “Trolls” is so onerously sugary that its lessons fall flat. There’s a calculated quality to the narrative: the sullen male companion, excitable female heroine, a requisite comedy-duo and endangered home town. It is as though the scriptwriters purchased a paint-by-numbers book on creating successful children’s films.
When King Peppy’s daughter and heir, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), must venture into the wilderness to rescue her kidnapped friends, her grand adventure is buoyed by half-hearted musical tracks and spasmodic explosions of glitter. Characters peddle truisms, or, more often, sing to recent pop singles. If anything, “Trolls” manages to be dated even before its release — most of the songs have been blaring on the radio for months.
The entire venture looks like a carefully marketed cuteness machine, designed according to some arcane factory paradigm to appeal to a particular age demographic. One could quite easily imagine DreamWorks executives pointing owlishly at charts and predicting ticket purchases.
Director Mike Mitchell’s film credits include “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and “Shrek Forever After,” neither of which are particularly flattering to his career. Both, however, were quite lucrative, and it seems that DreamWorks has decidedly invested stock in the money trail rather than any kind of quality. Certainly, most younger children will be entertained, though the film’s replay value is rather limited.
So, should you have a young child or sibling, and a few dollars to spare, keep the cash and wait for “Trolls” to release on Netflix.
Director: Mike Mitchell
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Russell Brand, James Corden, Gwen Stefani
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Image Courtesy of Dreamworks