Is Trolls World Tour — the sequel to the 2016 musical extravatastrophe Trolls and the first major studio movie to be released in homes instead of theaters during the coronavirus-prompted global shutdown — better than its predecessor?
The answer to that question may depend on how deeply you wish to dig into Trolls lore. Where the first movie posited a relatively simple metaphor for systemic oppression, with the colorful, tiny Trolls terrified of the consumerist Bergens, Trolls World Tour sets up a complicated Troll society, composed of six different tribes, each representing a certain kind of music. At some point in the past, the Trolls were united in harmony. But a fractious war over which style of music was the “true” music tore them asunder. Now, they live in separate lands, rarely meeting or cross-pollinating.
(Also, there are four sub-tribes of “bounty hunter” trolls, and it’s hard to glean why, for instance, the K-Pop Trolls are bounty hunters when the Pop Trolls are a full tribe, but that’s Western hegemony for you.)
It is debatable that I needed this level of knowledge about Troll society, but I’ll give Trolls World Tour this: Having so many places to visit during a slim 90-minute running time keeps the story moving and presumably introduces kids to a wide variety of musical genres. What’s more, the movie’s use of the famous rockists versus poptimists debate of the mid-2010s to stand in for all of our arguments about prejudice and oppression in society is almost clever, or at least more clever than the first film’s attempts to tell a story about consumerist capitalism in a movie based on dolls you could buy at a nearby Target the second you walked out of the theater.
But what do I know about Trolls World Tour? Not a lot! Though I am the critic-at-large for Vox, I’m also an adult and a bit of a grump. To truly appreciate the film, I had to find someone who really enjoyed it.
So let me introduce you to my newest colleague, Vox’s critic-at-small, 4.5-year-old Eliza, daughter of Vox’s culture editor.
Emily and Eliza on: The best part of Trolls World Tour
Emily: What’s fascinating to me about Trolls World Tour is the way it tries to engage with questions about systemic power imbalances on both personal and societal levels. Queen Poppy, the pink, musical troll voiced by Anna Kendrick, benefits from her royal status and her sunny optimism, to be sure. But she also benefits from the way that people just seem to see her as the center of the story. She exists in a bubble of privilege she doesn’t wholly understand until it is threatened by the Rock Troll Barb (a weirdly miscast Rachel Bloom).
Even more fascinating is how Trolls World Tour positions Poppy and Barb as foils, without Poppy realizing that Barb is a foe, not a friend. Barb longs to eliminate all music other than rock (just like a rockist!), while Poppy would never say she wanted to do that in the name of pop (it wouldn’t be the poptimist way). Yet Poppy is also uncomfortable with the idea that her friends have personal agency and won’t just do what she says, a stance that nearly breaks every relationship she has until she sees herself reflected in Barb’s megalomania.
Trolls World Tour also does a somewhat effective job of tying the concept of personal power to an idea of societal power. Like Frozen 2 before it, the movie offers a moment when Poppy understands that her power came from the brutal subjugation of others’ power, when the Pop Trolls took over all other musical genres. The result is a movie about wrestling with the messy cultural legacies of colonialism and genocide that also features several medleys of catchy pop hits.
Meanwhile, the handcrafted look of the two Trolls films, all felt and yarn and palpable textures, is to die for. They’re almost worth seeing just for that quality.
Eliza: I liked it. I liked the part at the end when Barb’s hair turned into rainbow hair. I liked the first song. I liked that [Poppy and Barb] became friends. I like Poppy. She’s pink, and I like the way that she sings and treats people. I also liked when Biggie dropped [Mr. Dinkles the worm] in the water, and Biggie went away because Poppy broke the pinkie promise they made.
Eliza and Emily on: The worst (or most disturbing) part of Trolls World Tour
Emily: A genuinely disturbing scene in which the Country Music Troll Hickory — who seems to be one of the handful of four-legged Trolls that populate this mystical world — reveals that he is, in fact, two yodeling trolls in disguise. We learn this by watching “Hickory” split in half, like something out of John Carpenter. Sam Rockwell’s voice acting as Hickory is one of my favorite things about the movie, but the scene in which he suddenly appears to be coming apart at the seams is all the more worrying for how casually Trolls World Tour depicts one of its major characters beginning to seemingly tear in half.
Eliza: I didn’t like the part when Barb was trying to destroy all music. And I didn’t like when one of the cowboy Trolls had another person with two legs coming out of it.
Emily: On that, we agree.
Emily and Eliza on: Why do some Trolls have four legs while others only have two?
Emily: This is one of those parts of Trolls lore that I simply am not equipped to explain, even though my wife frequently asked me throughout our viewing of the film. Do you have thoughts, Eliza?
Eliza: Cowboys are supposed to ride on horses, but there’s no horses. So [the two-legged Trolls] can still ride on [the four-legged Trolls].
Emily: While Eliza’s answer makes fundamental sense to me, it also paints a grim, dystopian view of the Trolls universe.
Emily and Eliza on: How good is the music of Trolls World Tour?
Emily: As always, your enjoyment of a Trolls movie will be directly tied to how much you enjoy its music. If anything, that link is even more apparent in Trolls World Tour, where every other scene drops into a montage of pop hits. (One blends “Who Let the Dogs Out?” with “Gangnam Style” in an attempt to teach children as many earworms as possible in an efficient manner.)
If you find Anna Kendrick and her Trolls costar Justin Timberlake to be enjoyable musical performers, you will probably like this movie just fine. If you don’t enjoy them, you might, like my wife, wonder just why the Pop Trolls are our ostensible heroes when the Rock Trolls ultimately perform the obviously superior song “Barracuda.” (The pop songs chosen do not exactly represent the genre well.) The musical numbers are well-produced, if nothing else, with a hyper-glossy sound and manic choreography that feels like 1930s musical director Busby Berkeley on about 50 Pixy Stix.
As far as original songs go, Trolls World Tour lacks anything as catchy as the first film’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” (universally known as “the song from Trolls”). However, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is quite possibly one of the catchiest songs ever written, so it would be difficult for Trolls World Tour to recapture that lightning in a bottle.
Eliza: The Cowboy Trolls had sad music. They didn’t know music should be happy.
Emily and Eliza on: Which Troll they are most like (and also which Troll is most like Jen, Eliza’s mom)
Emily: My wife says I’m a lot like Poppy, and she thinks that’s very annoying. Which Troll are you like?
Eliza: Poppy. I like Poppy.
Emily: Which Troll is your mom most like?
Eliza: [long, concerned silence]
Emily: [whispered] You can say Barb. It’s okay.
Eliza: She’s like the Cowboy Troll who sings [voiced by Kelly Clarkson]. She has red hair. I like red hair. [Emily: While the Troll Eliza refers to does, indeed, have red hair, Eliza’s mother does not. The connection here is lost on me.]
Emily and Eliza on: The ultimate message of Trolls World Tour
Emily: I am probably never going to get over the incredibly vast disconnect between the ambitions of the Trolls movies and the fact that they’re movies about tiny toy dolls. But I appreciated the way Trolls World Tour genuinely took an interest in drawing lines between personal and political systems of oppression. None of us is perfect; none of our systems is perfect. But we are all learning how to make those systems work better for all of us, not just some of us. Getting children to reflect on that idea — and to both notice and celebrate the differences of others — is a good thing, if nothing else.
Eliza, did you feel the movie taught us to celebrate our differences or that it’s better when everybody is the same?
Eliza: [with great confidence] Everyone should be the same.
Emily: Any other thoughts on the movie’s message?
Eliza: In the first movie, the Bergens said they couldn’t be nice, but they could, and in this movie, they were. [The Bergens appear in a single shot in this film, where they don’t play any meaningful role, but they do seem to be nicer.] When you don’t get along and when you’re fighting, you hurt people.
Trolls World Tour is currently available for rental on video-on-demand services.