“Trolls World Tour,” a piece of unassuming, handsomely produced fluff from Universal Dreamworks, is an unlikely candidate to make cinema history, yet that is precisely what it did.
Universal shook the industry in March when the studio bypassed a major motion-picture premiere as movie theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and delivered “Trolls” directly to streaming and video-on-demand. It was the first big, expensive feature to debut in our living rooms. And it may not be the last.
So how is “Trolls World Tour” and is it worth the $20 rental fee? Well, yes and no.
Based on the children’s toy, the movie is a sugary cavalcade of action, songs and Heavy Life Lessons worthy of a Pepsi jingle. “Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are,” one character explains. Or is the theme closer to George Clinton, who here does a pretty funny cameo: “One nation under a groove.”
The plot, such as it is, can best be described as leisurely. Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) discovers she rules only one of six different tribes in Troll Nation. Each is defined by their taste in music.
Poppy, as her name telegraphs, is the queen of the pop Trolls. The country Trolls, classical Trolls, funk Trolls and techno Trolls also have dominion over their realms.
Then there are the rock Trolls, ruled by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), a heavy-metal disciple who thinks all the other genres are dull and inferior. Barb plans to steal The Six Strings — glowing wires that contain all musical genres — and wipe them out by playing the ultimate riff on her guitar.
The script, credited to five writers, lacks imagination. The best they can come up with is sending Poppy and her crush Branch (Justin Timberlake) on a road trip through the Troll Universe to save the other tribes from Barb’s wrath. The writing stays on the surface. It’s disappointing when the relationship between Poppy and Branch fails to deepen further than stammering and happily-ever-after.
It’s hard to focus on the underachieving script, though, when directors Walt Dohrn and David P. Smith work up such a hyperbolic pictorial style for the movie. The colors are dazzling and the action is manic, disarmingly bizarre and imaginative. A baby is born from a mountainous tower of silvery hair, and when a Troll plays smooth jazz, the screen turns into a luminous haze of island sunsets in neon red, pink and purple.
Kelly Clarkson, Ozzy Osbourne, Mary J. Blige and the K-Pop group Red Velvet, among many others, appear in cameos of variable interest. The songs, including Heart’s “Barracuda” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with “Trolls” replacing “Girls,” are watered-down, child-safe versions of the real thing.
The script does convey one brief lesson in musical history. It’s a reminder that pop in all its forms once united the world as a community. Beneath all this movie’s furious visuals, that’s almost subversive.