At this point, children’s animated films have become systematized products, flashy, pre-fab propositions based on a rigidly defined template. DreamWorks Animation, in particular, has developed a highly standardized formula for its films based around a litanty of shopworn elements: the plot device of the hero’s journey; the celebrity voice acting; the ragtag band of companions, each with a special gimmick; the silly but menacing villain; the regularized musical numbers, which inevitably includes a dance-party blowout by film’s end; and a pervading tone of mild irreverence. Even certain facial expressions seem preplanned, carried over from one film to the next and simply grafted onto new character designs.
While restrictive in terms of the scope and tone of the film, this template does allow digital animators some room to play around with their craft. Such is the case with Trolls, the newest candy-coated concoction to roll off the DreamWorks Animation assembly line, a highly formulaic slice of kiddie-friendly content that nevertheless offers the opportunity to revel in some wonderfully palpable animation. The animators, led by directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, have crafted an incredibly textural world of felt, yarn, cotton, and string, with surfaces rendered in incredibly hyperreal detail.
The film’s narrative, on the other hand, is pure DreamWorks formula. Based on the hugely popular line of dolls created by Danish woodcarver Thomas Dam, Trolls opens with some ersatz mythology for these creatures. The trolls were once cultivated as a delicacy for the Bergens, a race of much larger, ogrish beings who associate eating trolls with true happiness. Led by King Peppy (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor), the trolls escaped to a new forest home where they now live almost oppressively happy lives of constant singing, dancing, and hugging. (They wear wrist pieces that ding every hour to remind them to hug each other, a detail which suggests the trolls’ relentless positivity may be a kind of community-enforced mandate, a thematically tantalizing suggestion that the film, unsurprisingly, doesn’t interrogate.)
Only the sullen and perpetually fearful Branch (Justin Timberlake) is immune to his people’s sprightly optimism, and thus only he has made preparations for the possible return of the Bergens. So naturally, as per the dictates of kiddie-movie plotting, when one of the Bergens (Christine Baranski) finds the trolls’ hideout and makes off with a group of them, he’s forced to pair up with Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the peppiest troll of them all, to journey to the land of the Bergens and rescue their companions.
The film proceeds as a kind of Kidz Bop jukebox musical, with the celebrity voice cast belting out peppy pop hits like Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet,” Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” which was written specifically for the film by Timberlake, his bid for “Happy”-style ubiquity. These play out as whizzy little music videos, brief diversions from the narrative to help keep the kids transfixed and maybe get them up and moving. But they’re also showcases for some vividly fluid animation that, as in the elaborate dance sequences, are powered by swooping-diving camerawork and include blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em visual gags.
Surely it’s no animator’s dream to work on a glitzy little speedball like Trolls, or to work for a company that suppresses animators’ pay through an illegal wage-fixing cartel, for which DreamWorks recently offered a $50 million settlement. But there are some beautiful moments here, such as a lovingly rendered piece of earthenware, or the film’s intermittent detours into scrapbook-style animation. Even in a film as pre-assembled as Trolls, the animators have just enough space to create moments of genuine artistry.