Review: Trolls: World Tour Is a Weird, Busy Exegesis on the State of Pop

At its best, the film doesn’t just privilege altered states of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness.

Trolls World Tour
Photo: Universal Pictures

The Trolls movies, like many children’s entertainments, function by way of double coding, providing exuberant absurdity for kids and hidden risqué jokes to keep their parents from wasting away from boredom. However, it’s perhaps the only such property that overcomes the threat of adults’ indifference to the romance of a fantastical land inhabited by sentient plastic dolls by appealing directly to stoner sensibilities. Tune out the dialogue—or don’t, it might not matter—in Walt Dohrn and David P. Smith’s Trolls: World Tour and you’ll observe neon-soaked environments built of wildly incongruous details, backgrounds that slowly shift and shimmer while characters in the foreground mumble incoherent phonemes, grinning faces whose features undulate like they’re being glimpsed through a glass jar, and manic irruptions of noise and color that abide by no rules of story pace or rhythm.

At its best, Trolls: World Tour doesn’t just privilege altered states of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness. Witness the soprano sax-playing Troll, who emerges from the fabric sea of the Trolls’ handcrafted world spewing valentines’ hearts from the end of his instrument, which, when inhaled by the film’s main characters, Branch (Justin Timberlake) and Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), send them, and us, on a hallucinogenic trip that includes visions of leaping narwhals, a glowworm with bodybuilder’s arms who emerges from the sand extending a plastic teal phone, and a two-dimensional tiger leaping over a Lisa Frank sunset directly toward the camera. And it all culminates with the almost Buñuelian image of Branch and Poppy’s heads materializing on the ends of some nigiri sitting on the beach.

Alongside sharing certain visual schemas with surrealist classics and laser light shows, Trolls: World Tour might be described as a jukebox musical, though it slices or mashes every song—from Daft Punk’s “One More Time” to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”—into highlights or medleys, never completing a single one before zinging onto the next. It’s like listening to an obnoxiously impatient, sonically incurious person’s Spotify playlist.

But the film also manages to outline the contours of a plot, somewhere between the scene in which a hot-air balloon (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) with Gumby-like lips sloppily shouts non sequiturs that no ostensibly conscious character acknowledges and the one in which a country-singing centaur Troll’s (Sam Rockwell) ass tears itself off to reveal that he’s actually two German-accented yodeling Trolls. The first Trolls, we learn, was set entirely in the Pop Kingdom, where bouncy pop music rules. But in the world of this film, there are other realms representing the other genres of music: techno, country, classical, funk, and hard rock. You know, the six kinds of music. (The existence of hip-hop as an offshoot of funk somehow surprises Poppy, even though she personally knows a tiny, diamond-encrusted rapping Troll named Tiny Diamond, voiced by Kenan Thompson.)

Dissatisfied with the Trolls’ musico-national alienation, the evil Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Hard Rock Trolls has embarked on an imperialist mission to unite all of Trolldom under the banner of rock ‘n’ roll. To do so, she travels across the land in her deep-sea anglerfish-shaped flying vessel, stealing the magical lute strings that give each realm its music and using them to string her guitar, in the process laying waste to each kingdom in some vague way. Learning the history of the strings from the Pop Kingdom’s royal scrapbook, Poppy and Branch set out in their animate hot-air balloon to stop Barb. Along the way, their perception of the historical innocence of pop music, as well as that of the kingdom they call home, comes to be challenged. As Prince D (Anderson .Paak) of the funk royal family puts it, “scrap books are cut out, glued, and glittered by the winners.” No doubt.

If the by-now obligatory social conscience of the bewilderingly trippy Trolls World Tour falls a bit flat, it’s because the film inevitably effaces the differences in musical-cum-ethnic identities it supposedly values, in a grand musical finale that synthesizes all said styles into the blandest imaginable pop medley. At the risk of taking Trolls too seriously—though one could argue that the film’s moral about tolerance invites such serious consideration—it would seem that Queen Barb’s totalitarian quest is realized, rather than refuted, by the pseudo-diversity of a world synchronized to a single beat and available for purchase in standardized plastic molds.

 Cast: Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Rachel Bloom, Anderson .Paak, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige, Kenan Thompson, Kunal Nayyar, Da’Vine Joy Randolph  Director: Walt Dohrn, David P. Smith  Screenwriter: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Elizabeth Tippet  Distributor: Universal Pictures  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2020  Buy: Video

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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