Trolls, the new animated movie about the little dolls with the long, neon-hued hair, is the kind of movie that invites the mind to wander.
This is to say it’s not a good movie, but it’s also not a bad movie. It’s reasonably entertaining, with some good musical numbers and at least one goofily endearing performance.
But it’s also just a little bit all over the place, with a story that often seems like a fairy-tale greatest hits album — with all the hits covered by trolls. It’s a story assembled by committee.
In other words, it lulls you. The crowd I saw it with laughed at the right places and got emotional at the right places, but it all felt rather muted — like the drowsy emotions you might feel while falling asleep in the back seat of a car while someone else drives home.
Naturally, the more my mind wandered, the more I started pondering questions about the film’s universe, visual aesthetic, and more. Here are five of them.
1) Is true happiness attainable?
Trolls posits a universe where the singing, dancing, hugging Trolls live in a Troll Tree — until they are imprisoned by big, monochromatic monsters named Bergens, who look a bit like the images from a computer monitor back when said monitors could only display four colors at a time.
The Bergens eat Trolls, during an annual festival named Trollstice (thus justifying the film’s "holiday season" release date), because the Trolls give them bursts of pure happiness or something.
Anyway, there are hints here and there that the Bergens can find happiness without eating tiny living things who enjoy singing and dancing, that true happiness comes from within. It’s meant to be vaguely anti-consumerist, which is kind of rich for a movie based on literal toy dolls.
But is this true? Can you ever truly attain happiness? The characters in Trolls find a way to move toward a kind of inner serenity, but we only see their first steps. Who will they be 10 years from now, when singing and dancing are no longer enough? On that day, the Bergens might turn, again, to the simple joys of munching on Trolls.
I’m saying I wouldn’t be too comfortable if I were a Troll.
2) Why isn’t Zooey Deschanel always this weird?
Trolls is a DreamWorks Animation production, which means that nearly every voice role is filled by someone you’ve probably heard of before. Anna Kendrick is Princess Poppy, the effervescent lead who feels like the actress’s Pitch Perfect character turned up to 150 percent. Justin Timberlake is Branch, a grumpy dude. Christopher Mintz-Plasse! Christine Baranski! James Corden! They’re all here.
But my favorite performance in the movie belongs to Zooey Deschanel, who plays Bridget, a Bergen scullery maid, with the voice of a parent trying to read a book about a spooky monster to her child. Her half-growl, half-coo turns Bridget from a random side character into someone who legitimately takes over the movie for a while.
Deschanel has always had a kooky side. Trolls offers her one of her best chances to simply give in to that part of herself — and it’s legitimately one of my favorite movie performances from her, even if something like half of her dialogue is saying, "Yes, chef!" to her boss.
3) Is this movie going to be a Cyrano de Bergerac riff or a Cinderella riff?
So when Trolls begins, Poppy and Branch have to set off to Bergen Town to save some of their friends, who have been kidnapped so the Bergens can eat them at Trollstice. There’s a whole thing about how the Bergens haven’t had a Troll to eat in 20 years, and now they’re super unhappy about it, but it all turns out to be really inconsequential — it’s mostly there so Poppy can age from baby to incipient ruler.
Once they get there after a few songs and a couple of adventures, there’s something like half the movie left, so the movie switches protagonists to Bridget (who’s in love with the Bergen King), and it becomes a weird mashup of Cyrano and Cinderella, with Poppy and company trying to turn Bridget into the kind of "hot babe" the king might want (right down to the Trolls feeding her the right lines to woo the king), and the king wondering who this beautiful stranger he met could be.
Really, the problem here is that the movie just runs out of story, and the songs can only compensate so much. A 90-minute movie with this many storylines — ones for Poppy, Branch, Bridget, the King, and the antagonist Chef — is always going to feel unwieldy. That Trolls almost gets away with it is probably worth something.
4) Why does the movie have to explain everything?
Early in the film, there’s a flashback to how the whole Troll/Bergen animosity began, and it’s told in charming scrapbook-style animation, with Kendrick’s voice knitting everything together. The film employs this visual style every time it cuts to a flashback — but it also has to explain that this is somehow Poppy scrapbooking her memories, even when that’s literally impossible for her to do.
The scrapbooking thing doesn’t even really have a bearing on her character. Ostensibly, this is a movie about her learning how to be the kind of leader who can succeed her father proudly, but it keeps introducing new ideas that detract from that central character arc, often for no reason.
It’s the same with just about everybody else. Chef has an evil plan that makes no sense but sure gets explained a lot. Branch has a painful past that gets a late-in-film reveal that has no bearing on anything. Even the backstory of the Troll/Bergen kerfuffle is explained in several different ways, when it probably only needed to come up once.
5) How many dead ends can one movie have?
There are a lot of reasons to recommend Trolls. Its hyper-pastel visual look could be grating but instead stays on the good side of the "Lisa Frank folder" line. The voice cast is solid, and the various creatures they voice are imaginatively designed. The song sequences are often a lot of fun — especially a heist carried out in a roller skate to the tune of Donna Summer’s "I Feel Love."
But this movie frequently seems like it’s introducing pointless busywork to pad its running time. Branch and Poppy run into a needlessly antagonistic cloud who’s just there to make the movie longer. The same is true of the Bridget/King love story, ultimately, as well as a late-in-movie turn toward the villainous by one character.
Without all of this extraneous business, the movie would be around 30 minutes long — or roughly the length of one of DreamWorks’ episodes of its Netflix TV shows. And maybe that’s the ideal length for this cast of characters. As it stands, though, Trolls is a weird, messy movie — like a scrapbook filled with odds and ends and unused construction paper, instead of happy memories.
Bonus: Why did that irritatingly catchy Justin Timberlake song "Can’t Stop the Feeling" from this movie come out in the summer?
Ultimately, it was a better fit for the summer music season, when it could become a "Song of the Summer" contender.
And its ubiquity suggests that, like Despicable Me 2’s "Happy" (its clear inspiration), it could get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Justin Timberlake versus Moana’s Lin-Manuel Miranda versus the tunes from the musical La La Land could make that one of the most interesting "small" Oscar categories of the upcoming awards.
Trolls is playing in theaters everywhere. Take your favorite internet troll.