It’s ironic in a way that a movie as evanescent and inconsequential as Trolls World Tour — the sequel to the 2016 hit Trolls, based on the cute little Danish dolls — could have potentially earthshaking ramifications for the movie business.
Trolls World Tour was once set to open today (April 10) in a normal, wide theatrical release, but those plans were crushed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent closing of movie theaters worldwide. Universal Pictures, distributor of the Dreamworks Animation-produced film, decided to stick with the release date anyway, launching the film primarily online as an on-demand offering (it may also be playing in the few physical theaters still open, including drive-ins).
While other high-profile studio movies in theaters quickly moved online once the pandemic took hold — Onward, The Invisible Man, and Bloodshot among them — Trolls World Tour is the first to premiere there directly. Although the move was sure to piss off already-reeling theater owners, if it’s successful it could portend a very different method of releasing bigger Hollywood films in the future.
For Universal, using Trolls World Tour for this kind of experiment makes sense: it’s not necessarily a film that would have turned a profit in theaters (the original did, although it’s hard to gauge whether the demand was there for a sequel) but it’s a suitable outing to release online. It’s a big, colorful movie, but arguably not the kind of tentpole that needs to be seen on a large screen — any nice-sized TV will do. More importantly, it’s likely to provide much-needed relief for millions of parents trapped inside with their young children and looking for something, anything to distract the kids for a blessed hour and a half.
On that front, Trolls World Tour fits the bill. Once again soaked in eye-popping colors (with more than a touch of psychedelia that may intrigue some of the older folks out there) and featuring an array of catchy tunes both classic and original, the movie goes through its paces with energy and flair. Its themes are familiar but always worthy, and even if it gets a little too noisy and frantic at times, it’s harmless.
When we last saw the little kingdom of the trolls, the endlessly positive Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) had taken over as queen from her retiring father King Peppy (voiced by co-director Walt Dohrn, replacing Jeffrey Tambor), aided by her more cautious but still loyal friend Branch (Justin Timberlake). All seems well but both trouble and shocking revelations are afoot.
It turns out that there are six tribes of trolls in the world, each dedicated to a specific genre of music embodied by a string: Poppy’s tribe is dedicated to pop, while the others are devoted to country, classical, funk, techno, and hard rock. Over the course of time, the six factions had become intolerant of each other’s music, with each taking their string and going off to live in isolation.
In time-honored degenerate rocker fashion (throw up those horns!), Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the hard rock clan has hatched a plot to seize the rest of the
Infinity Stones strings from the other tribes, put them on her gauntlet guitar and snap her fingers play the “ultimate power chord,” thus dusting turning all the other trolls into one tribe under rock.
Poppy sets out to meet with Barb, convinced at first that the tribes can find a way to live in harmony. A more suspicious Branch sounds the alarm, creating a conflict with Poppy until the latter understands that Barb may end up destroying their world as they know it. But by the time Poppy realizes this, it may be too late. The ultimate message of the film — that we can and should respect and embrace each other’s differences because they are what makes us special — is made easily digestible and, in these times of isolation and loneliness, will turn off only the most cynical among us.
Aside from the very Thanos-like outlines of Barb’s plan, there are plenty of nods to other movies as well, including an amusing bunch of bounty hunters (shades of The Empire Strikes Back) who hail from musical subgenres like reggaeton and smooth jazz (the latter is rather hilariously used to lull trolls into a kind of drugged stupor). And the musician cameos come fast and furious (no pun intended there, Universal), with George Clinton and Mary J. Blige as the king and queen of the funk trolls (who live in a very Parliament-Funkadelic spaceship), Kelly Clarkson as the leader of the country trolls (who are half-horse) and Ozzy Osbourne as Queen Barb’s befuddled dad/rock king emeritus.
As with the first Trolls, the music is a nearly non-stop mix of originals (from Timberlake, his fellow music producer Ludwig Göransson, Clarkson, SZA and others) and remixes of classic pop and rock tunes from the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Chic, Ozzy, Scorpions, MC Hammer and many more. If there is no showstopper like the first film’s wildly infectious “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”, the movie still manages to take viewers on a tour through musical history that is both edifying and instructive.
As noted earlier, Dohrn and co-director David P. Smith have delivered a bright, immersive, color-drenched world for the trolls to romp in. Even if the plot (devised by five screenwriters) is derivative and thin, it achieves its laudable goals in a brisk 80 minutes or so (minus credits). As a movie, Trolls World Tour is fun and watchable, if no world-changer. But it may be remembered for longer than anyone might have expected as a version of Barb’s “ultimate power chord” — a signifier of upheavals to come in the movie business itself.
Trolls World Tour is available now on demand and in very limited theatrical release.