Four years ago, with its colorful array of cute, bubbly, and pop-musically-inclined characters, “Trolls” became a surprise toy-turned-family-movie blockbuster, bolstered by an earworm of a soundtrack — kindergarteners everywhere knew every syllable of voice actor and music producer Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” — that kept the film alive months after its theatrical debut.
Now “Trolls World Tour” takes the stage, and while it doesn’t quite hit the same high notes as its predecessor, the home-field advantage of being one of the first theatrical releases to be released day-and-date on-demand amid the coronavirus pandemic will bring some much-needed entertainment and lightness to families everywhere.
When rocker Queen Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) descends on the land of the “Techno” trolls, she makes her plans immediately known: “We’re all going to be one nation of Trolls — under rock!” she vows, as she plots to force every troll community to convert to rock trolls. Poppy (Anna Kendrick), now known as Queen Poppy, receives what she thinks is an “invitation” from Barb and is excited to befriend a fellow queen.
Meanwhile, Branch (Timberlake) is hopelessly (and secretly) in love with Poppy but also conflicted because he sees her becoming a bad listener and intolerant of opinions different from her own. He tells Poppy of his suspicions regarding Barb’s invitation, which she refutes; to prove that his reservations about her sister monarch are wrong, she sets off to deliver her RSVP to Barb personally.
As Poppy and Branch journey to deliver Poppy’s card to Barb, they discover some long-lost troll history and learn that there are actually six different tribes of trolls, divided up by musical genre: funk, techno, classical music, country, hard rock, and pop, the latter being their parent tribe. Each genre is represented by a different color guitar string that once used to be played in harmony; that is, until the trolls grew tired of each other’s music, and each took their string and left to form their own lands. They soon uncover Barb’s plan to steal all the strings, thus wiping out all other music and forcing the whole troll world to rock, whether they want to or not.
It’s a lesson in diversity and tolerance told through several cute and whimsical troll worlds. The team of writers (Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, and Elizabeth Tippet) have creatively figured out how to build out the troll universe, even if they lose themselves when it comes to finding an even tone. At times the humor feels elementary (and at others a little flat), but the story really finds itself when it weaves musical history into this road-trip tale in a captivating and entertaining manner. Yes, the messaging of inclusivity is apparent, but the film doesn’t really take off until it finds that essential component, finally giving the trolls their purpose.
Returning director Walter Dohrn brings his prior “Trolls” experience in an attempt to build (with co-director David P. Smith, a TV vet) on what made the first film so popular — the colors and the music — but doesn’t bring much else to it. Dohrn and Smith have crafted an interesting extension of the universe, but that’s about it.
The music from the various kingdoms does the real heavy lifting in “Trolls World Tour,” with the Timberlake-produced soundtrack carefully choosing catchy tunes from each genre, offering something for everyone in a savvy way. But in this jukebox of hits, there is no one clear chartbuster along the lines of “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
I streamed “Trolls World Tour” at home with my family, and I believe streaming actually enhanced our experience. We’ve been sheltering at home for two weeks here in Los Angeles, and the film provided a delightful little break amid all the panic outside. My teen might have checked out a couple times (“It’s a little baby-ish, sometimes” she tells me), but it got our little family to forget about the world for 100 minutes, hum a few fun tunes, and relax a little.
“Trolls World Tour” is available on-demand April 10.