You’re supposed to remake the bad movies and rip off the good ones, but the people behind “Trolls” apparently got their wires crossed by stealing from the worst. This new animated feature, premiering at the London Film Festival a month before it hits theaters stateside, combines the barely-there characterization and irritating cutesiness of “The Smurfs” with the hideous character design and awful pop covers of “Strange Magic.”
The film begins with lumbering ogre giants known as the Bergens preparing for the holiday of Trollstice, the one day a year they get to experience happiness by eating a troll. Much to their surprise, the trolls, led by King Peppy (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor), have escaped to freedom. Cut to 20 years later, when Peppy’s daughter Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) organizes a big, loud party to celebrate the trolls’ liberation, over the objections of doomsday prepper Branch (Justin Timberlake), who’s convinced that the Bergens will return at any moment to gobble them up. (A montage of Branch’s panicky freak-outs provides one of the movie’s very few instances of intentional comedy.)
It turns out that Branch is right — the fireworks from Poppy’s party attract the attention of the Bergen king’s Chef (Christine Baranski), who was exiled decades ago when all the trolls fled. She sees the little singing, dancing, hugging beings as her ticket back into the palace, so she kidnaps a handful of them to serve to Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Poppy sets off to rescue her friends, with a reluctant Branch in tow, and the only way to keep from being eaten is to teach the Bergens about happiness, which involves making Prince Gristle fall in love with smitten scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel).
On the rare occasion “Trolls” unpacks an original song — the big finale “Can’t Fight the Feeling,” or Poppy encouraging herself with “Get Back Up Again” — you get a hint of the tolerable musical it might have been. Instead, under the auspices of “Executive Music Producer” Timberlake (who apparently wanted to find a film credit even more embarrassing than “The Love Guru”), we’re subjected to a mix tape from a Baby Gap, with twinkly covers of hits like “September,” “True Colors” and “The Sounds of Silence.”
(The movie’s one flirtation with deep cuts is a medley of Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet” and the Brady Bunch’s “Sunshine Day,” but even this nutty combo is undone by a bland, twinkly arrangement, and by having Kendrick replace “feet” with “hair,” since all the title characters have manes that are fully-articulated vertical columns.)
Kendrick, incidentally, is one of this generation’s finest actresses-who-can-sing — check out “The Last Five Years” sometime — so it’s disappointing that there are only so many “La La Land”s to go around, leaving her stuck with this unbearable kiddie fiasco. It doesn’t help that she’s paired with Timberlake, who is so out of his depth that one of the few laughs I got from the film came from his most serious line; Branch explains the dark reason why he doesn’t like to sing, but it lands with the grim humor of Phoebe Cates’s speech in “Gremlins” about Santa Claus, only without the intentional wit.
Even if you plug your ears during the endless Kidz Bop numbers, you’re still stuck with the eye-assaulting visual palette from director Mike Mitchell (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”) and co-director Walt Dohm (“SpongeBob SquarePants”) — the troll scenes offer a mix of neon pastels that suggest someone ate a Lisa Frank store and promptly regurgitated it, while Bergentown features the vast spectrum of tones you might find in a baby’s full diaper.
The message of “Trolls,” delivered with no subtlety whatsoever, is that happiness comes from within and can’t be consumed, which is hilarious for a movie that is literally built to sell troll toys. Parents everywhere will no doubt attempt to share that moral with children screaming for tie-in merchandise this holiday season.