As I wrote a couple weeks back, one of the biggest casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the movie theater industry, which as of this writing is pretty much on life support. In this unimaginable domino effect that happened pretty much overnight, Hollywood pulled all of the remaining Spring season movies off of the schedule, in order to comply with all state and city ordinances to remain at home to slow the spread of the virus. And this has resulted in a devastating disruption of the traditional movie theater business, which is in danger of not being able to survive the next few weeks, let alone months. For Hollywood, the same disruption is also having ripple effects, with all productions shut down indefinitely. We won’t see the effects of this for a while, as the delay in movie premieres still will give us a back log of all the movies that were at or near completion. But this has presented an interesting dilemma for Hollywood; how do you try to get your movie out there in a disrupted market like this one. With movie theaters and film festivals out of the question, all that is left is home theater distribution. Most studios have opted to give some space to allow for a return to normalcy in the market by pushing their movies back to later this year, or even further into the next one. But there were other movies that were too far along in their marketing cycle to put off their premiere for another 6-12 months. The movie either had to come out now, or otherwise it would lose money. So, to salvage some of the market cost lost through the closures of the movie theaters, we have seen many early premieres of this year’s spring slate of movies on demand through streaming. And among them is a big title that’s going to end up bypassing the theatrical experience altogether; Dreamworks Animation’s Trolls World Tour.
Trolls World Tour is a follow-up to the modestly successful animated feature from Dreamworks based on the popular toy line. Being one of the premiere names in animation, Dreamworks was gearing their animated sequel as a major title for the spring season. Animated movies always perform with strong legs, and the wide open Spring season would’ve given it the breathing room to do so. With an Easter weekend premiere, and a month separating it from the premiere of Onward from rival studio Pixar, all that Trolls World Tour had to do was withstand counter-programming from the likes of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. And then everything fell apart overnight. Onward’s unfortunate timing led to a very short two week run in theaters before they had to close, and in the weeks after, they had to quickly bring their film onto their streaming platform, just to keep it in the public eye and not make all those marketing and merchandising expenses go to waste. Trolls likewise ended up in the same position, with so many marketing tie-ins having made it into stores in the past few weeks, there was no way for them to put the cow back in the barn as it were. So, parent company Universal decided to enact a bold experiment in order to make do with the situation that they have. They would release Trolls World Tour on it’s scheduled premiere date as a premium rental on streaming sites across the web. Normally, this would’ve been seen as a kiss of death, as movies getting dumped onto streaming was like the new straight-to-video; a marker of lower quality. But, given the circumstances that we are in, with the future of movie theaters in doubt, the industry is looking at Trolls World Tour‘s premiere online as a possible harbinger of what the future of market may be. The only question is, will it work or is it just a stop-gap before things can return to normal.
Trolls World Tour takes place more or less where the last film left off. Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) has been given the title of Queen, and she is beloved by all her subjects, including the survivalist Branch (Justin Timeberlake). One day, she receives notice that another troll queen named Barb (Rachel Bloom) has been attacking other troll kingdoms across the world, and is on her way to invading theirs as well. Poppy learns of the history of the different troll tribes and how they all represent different kinds of music: Funk, Country, Classical, Techno, Rock and Pop, of which Poppy’s kingdom is representative of. Each tribe are the protectors of an enchanted strings which if combined together and were brought under the control of any select tribe would allow for that type of music to dominate all others. Barb is on a mission to collect all the strings at any cost and bring domination of all the other troll tribes under her own Rock music. While Branch takes this threat as an indication for all of the Pop trolls to seek shelter immediately, Poppy hopes to find Barb herself and reason with her, with Branch reluctantly tagging along. On their way, they receive assistance from a Country troll named Hickory (Sam Rockwell), who helps to guide them along their way. However, Barb has sent different troll bounty hunters from some of the minor kingdoms like Smooth Jazz, Raggaeton, K-Pop, and Yodelling to stop Poppy from thwarting her plans. Meanwhile, some of Poppy’s closest friends seek out to find out more about these other troll kingdoms that they knew nothing about before, including the four-legged Cooper (Ron Funches) and the overweight Biggie (James Corden). All together, each and every troll is on their way towards destiny, and whoever succeeds will either force domination of one brand of music over all, or bring harmony with all music coming together.
I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to this movie, or even the first one to begin with. I particularly rolled my eyes at the idea to begin with, because it looked like Dreamworks was just wasting their talents on what I thought was essentially a commercial, both for the toy line it was based off of and for the inevitable tie-in album that was going to be sold around the same time. But, given the fact that I am unfortunately without many options of movies to review for the time being, and may have to wait until as far as July before I can even see the inside of a movie theater again (if at all), I decided that I had no other alternative than to take the plunge into the Troll franchise. And, perhaps it’s maybe me being too judgmental at first based on first impressions based on the marketing for the movie, but quite like how The Lego Movie (2014) subverted my expectations and was way better than I thought it would ever be, I had a better than expected reaction to the movie Trolls (2016) than I thought. Now, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as good as The Lego Movie, but for what it was, it was passable entertainment in the end which is better than the excruciating chore that I thought I was in store for. There were still many problems that I had with it, but I admired it’s consistency with it’s story and the fact that it was a very well animated film with a talented cast performing some catchy songs. But, how does Trolls World Tour stand up. Well, while I can say that I have seen much worse animated features, and even worse animated sequels (Frozen II anyone?), World Tour unfortunately felt a little underwhelming in comparison to it’s already passable predecessor. If anything, it lacks the consistency that I felt held the original film together, and everything that was flawed only felt amped up in this follow-up. There are still some good things about it, but not enough to make me heap praise on the film.
I’d say where the movie falters is that it tries to do too much. The titular “World Tour” allows for some creative settings to explore, but the break neck pace of the story doesn’t give us much time to soak it all in. Just as we get settled in one of the new kingdoms, we suddenly jump into another, screeching to a halt any interesting developments that could have been further explored. The Classical Troll kingdom in particular is given mere minutes of screen-time before it’s off to the next setting. Sometimes one of the best things a sequel can do is to really explore the outside world more, helping to build it’s world, but I felt that this movie did too much of that. There is enough world-building in this movie to fill maybe three movies worth, and what ends up being sacrificed in the process is other crucial things like character development and the raising of the stakes. And that is where I feel that the movie falls apart. The characters of Poppy and Branch really don’t have not much to do in this film as all of their key character development happened in the previous film, so either their stories had to be regressed a bit to offer some extra tension in this movie, like the romantic subplot which for some reason seemed to be rebooted at the start of this movie. Supporting characters really have nothing more to do than to just pop up and offer some comic relief. One thing that I did miss about the original film is the streamlined plot of the Trolls learning to overcome the threat of their native enemy, the repulsive Bergens, and even find a way to live in harmony with them. The Bergens, by the way, are completely side-lined in this movie, which is too bad because their development in the original, from monstrous menaces to fully dimensional characters, was one of the highlights of the first film. Though World Tour has a lot more of the world to play around in, it unfortunately does so in an underwhelming way.
That’s not to say that everything about it is bad. For one thing, the visuals in this movie, much like the original, are pretty spectacular. You’ll probably never find a movie this year or any with such a vibrant color palette. And though the different worlds are never effectively explored, they do still offer some imaginative visuals whenever they’re seen. I especially love the craft materials texture that permeates the entire movie. One of the most clever ideas I noticed was a waterfall being represented by ribbons of paper, like the kind we would make in school with construction paper rolled around a pencil. Even the skin texture of the characters themselves are impressive, creating a look of felt cloth. Though the story may be meandering, the look of the movie is likely going to impress even the most cynical of critics, which is a testament to the hard work done by the artists working at Dreamworks Animation. These guys have become one of the most trusted names in the animation world for a reason, and the visuals here are proof of that. Also, though I felt that the execution of the story was lacking, I did really appreciate the message that was buried at it’s center. It’s actually even a more provocative one found in the original. Remarkably, the movie takes a subtle jab at the music industry itself, and the way that it homogenizes so much music in order to make it what it considers “mainstream.” There’s a strong message here about the need to retain the cultural and racial identities that are tied to various forms of music, because it’s an important aspect of retaining the diversity that keeps so much of the culture running. It’s an especially potent message to have at a time like this where we are being driven more apart than ever, and it illustrates the need to have all voices be heard. I didn’t expect a message like that to come from a movie like this, so I’m glad that they included it here.
It’s understandable that given such a keen focus this movie has on the element of music that the cast itself would be made up of many talented singers as well as actors. And like the first film, this is movie full of songs tailor made for the actors performing them. Anna Kendrick, of course, is a triple threat performer with numerous films to her credit that take advantage of her vocal range; most notably the Pitch Perfect series. She brings a lot of energy to the role of Poppy which is an asset that helps to carry her even over some of the mediocre writing. Even though her character is less interesting this time around, Kendrick still charms with her peppy performance. The same unfortunately can’t be said about Justin Timberlake, who still feels miscast in this role. He can certainly sing the songs with no problem, but his higher pitched voice just doesn’t feel right for the rustic, cynical character that he is playing. In addition, the character Branch has little to nothing to do in this movie, so Timberlake just feels lost here in between songs. What I do like in this cast is some of the tribute casting that the movie does for some legendary performers. During the course of the movie, we meet some of the elders of the different kingdoms, including King Quincy (named after the legendary composer Quincy Jones) and is voiced by the godfather of funk himself, George Clinton. There is also King Thrash of the Rock kingdom, who is voiced by none other than Ozzy Osbourne himself. It’s a treat to hear these two legends participating in this tribute to music styles of all kinds, and the fact that they are there is a nod to their significant contributions to the musical landscape as a whole. All the different musical covers are also spirited and well done. Sure, it’s about selling a soundtrack album, but I could think of much more shameless uses of pop songs used in animated movies (see Illumination Animation’s entire catalog). At least the actors here are performing their own singing, even in minor roles. One particular new character that did given me a laugh every now and then was a raping baby troll with glitter skin voiced by SNL alum Kenan Thompson, who is very funny here. A good cast goes a long way, and it helps this movie as a whole in general.
It’s hard to say if this is the future of movie distribution. If the industry wanted to change the industry forever, they would’ve chosen a more compelling film than this to center the experiment around. Trolls World Tour is passable entertainment, much like it’s predecessor, and is not really something that is demanding to be seen on any screen, big or small. It certainly isn’t quite worth the premium asking price of $19.99 that you have to pay right now, although if you have young children that are interested, this might actually be a good value, rather than what the box office price would’ve been originally. For children, it’s harmless enough entertainment, with a surprisingly potent message at it’s core. But, otherwise, I’d say watch it only if you are a really big fan of the original. If you are, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did. It’s certainly far from the worst animation that I’ve ever seen, but no where near the best either; not even among Dreamworks animated films. The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to me still is the gold standard for the studio, and a prime example of building upon something that was already great with even more worthwhile character and world building. What I liked so much about those movies is that throughout all three movies, the filmmakers were never afraid of taking risks and trying new things, consistently raising the stakes. Trolls World Tour is a safe sequel that tries to expand it’s world, but falls well short of achieving it’s lofty goals. I for one am just hoping that it’s release on demand was just out of necessity and not a harbinger of the new normal in distribution. We need the movie theaters back, and World Tour‘s terrible timing was just the result of things falling well out of control for everyone involved. Who knows, I might have felt different about this movie had I seen it in a theater with an audience. As it stands, it’s a noble effort of a sequel, but one that both in itself and in it’s venue of viewership, makes you long for something better.