‘Trolls World Tour’ fine, but not for $20

Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

$20/10 Well I guess I should write something.

With the entire world under quarantine and theaters shuttered, most movies have been pulled from the release schedule. But one, Trolls World Tour, which I had particularly been looking forward to, stayed in line with its April release date, shifting to a streaming debut instead. It’s out now, and you too can stream it into your quarantined home.

For $20. You can do this for $20.

In Trolls World Tour, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), now the queen of her people, learns that the trolls are not alone. In ancient times, many varied races of trolls shared six infinity stones strings from which all music was formed, but there was a great schism, and each of the strings was taken and hidden by a different troll tribe, which led to them forming different genres of music. Now, Queen Barb of the Hard Rock Trolls (Rachel Bloom) has amassed an army and has begun an assault on the other tribes. After assembling the six strings, Barb intends to use them to shred out the ultimate power chord, destroying all music that is not hard rock. Poppy, with her survivalist advisor Branch (Justin Timberlake) in tow, sets off to stop Barb by collecting all the strings herself so that all trolls can live together in harmony.

At its best moments, Trolls World Tour is a loving ode to music, not as an art form, but as a centralizing cultural force that inspires and stems from human life, to the fashions, lifestyles, attitudes and identities that form around it and to the spaces built for it to fill, the backpacks you take barhopping from punk show to punk show and the rural barbecue that wouldn’t taste the same without that sad country soundtrack. Even Barb’s shoulders-back saunter seems clearly inspired not by music as much as the kinds of people who play it. You’ve even got the trends of pop sampling and bastardizing other musical genres and rock’s tendency to eclipse other forms of music anthropomorphized and incorporated as Poppy’s and Barb’s competing intentions.

Trolls World Tour features a stellar voice cast, highlighted by Ozzy Osborne as Barb’s father, King Thrash.

That’s its best moments, though, and those are in special details that are too sparse to really elevate the film. Trolls World Tour is barely even the jukebox musical it purports to be because of the same issue – there are barely any musical numbers. Looking at the official soundtrack, there are only seven recognizable hits, all of which are given less than a minute of screentime. Additionally, there’s a number where Poppy and her companions breeze through four or five contemporary pop songs to introduce the country trolls to the genre, blowing a significant chunk of the movie’s licensing budget in one bland two-minute blast.

It’s a good thing the movie takes such pride in the culture surrounding music, because it doesn’t seem to care about music itself.

Instead, Trolls World Tour is mostly a kid-friendly allegory about accepting, but not overlooking, differences, one that’s more explicitly racial in some spots than others, but it’s also about how Poppy needs to learn how to listen and about Branch plucking up the nerve to tell her he loves her. Both of these plot points are heavily reminiscent of Frozen 2 from last November, another animated musical that seemed to have very little idea what to do with its characters.

It’s most apparent in the romantic subplot, which is almost identical to Kristoff’s part in Frozen 2 – like Kristoff, Branch was a major character in the first film, a survivalist who helps the lead get through spots she’s otherwise completely unequipped to deal with, who spends most of the movie wracked with nerves about being friendzoned. It’s an imposition of ‘80s rom-com tropes born purely of lazy writing, and it sticks out even more in Trolls World Tour because, where Kristoff could have easily been written out of his sequel, Branch remains a vital character in the main plot, serving as a foil to Poppy’s optimism and lack of awareness.

I’m going back through American Horror Story in quarantine, and series seven of that show features “pinky power” as a sinister and weirdly prominent element of its plot, so when Poppy offers one of her subjects a pinky promise and it’s treated as an unbreakable vow I’m less laughing at the satire and more stewing in discomfort because of the weird parallels.

The lazy reinforcement of harmful and extremely outdated cultural ideas about male-female relationships is even more out of place after Guy Diamond (Kunal Nayyar) gives birth to Tiny Diamond (Kenan Thompson), apparently asexually, in the first scene, begging several questions. Do trolls have sex, recreationally if not reproductively? If not, what are they writing all those songs about? Do they pair romantically at all? Branch’s sudden, pathetic stuttering around a woman to whom he is chief advisor and caretaker is the only suggestion of this. But again, if they don’t, what’s with all the music?

I feel like I’m going on about this, but with so little thought seemingly paid to this plot construct, the assumptions that underly it become extremely noticeable.

The racial allegory is more in line with modern thoughts, but seems similarly ham-fisted. In a small but telling subplot, Cooper (Ron Funches), a giraffe-like pop troll, discovers that one of the other tribes looks like him, and goes on a separate quest to find them. Cooper eventually learns that he is the long-lost prince of the funk trolls, gifted with loving parents and a twin brother after having felt alone his whole life. Cooper, who is voiced by a black man, is explicitly excited about other trolls who “look like him.” That’s the phrasing. His family and all the other funk trolls – and the extremely funky Tiny Diamond – are all voiced by black actors as well.

The dynamic puts the differences between the troll tribes into explicitly racial terms, making Barb’s quest to destroy them genocidal and Poppy’s insistence on ignoring their differences into that tired neoliberal trope of “not seeing race.” It increases the film’s ambition and potential. But while the best version of the dynamic they were going for could have been a cathartic bit of representation, it falls flat in an animated movie, where the actors are all offscreen.

Also, designating funk trolls as the black ones may seem accurate to the musical genres, but that ignores that every modern musician, from Elvis and Johnny Cash to The Beatles to Nirvana to Katy Perry, owe at least some of their sound to the black-dominated blues houses of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The only trolls who aren’t indebted to black musicians are the classical trolls, and they don’t even get a number – just a few recognizable snippets of Beethoven. The 5-year-old audience Trolls World Tour was predominantly made for has no time for that genre. The fact that I’m going through this is probably a mark against it – half-thought out racial metaphors are very bad things to have in your movie.

The trolls’ faces can be quite unfortunate when you pause them while they’re singing, but you can see that in stills anyhow.

Trolls World Tour was made for theater screens, but will mostly only make it to computers. The differences in format are minimal in this instance – this is a toy-driven sequel, not a work of art that demands to be played on the big screen like a Scorsese movie. The animation is appreciable, but not intricate enough that you ever really want to pause the movie and drink in a single frame. I watched on Amazon Prime, which has a nifty trivia feature that it pairs with its streaming movies, and there were only two notes through the entire film, a testament either to Trolls World Tour’s vapidness or the lack of preparation before it hit streaming.

As the world closed, several recent movies went to streaming early, most notably Onward, which was still no. 1 at the box office when the bomb dropped and became available on Disney+ just a month after its March 6 release, but Universal has been particularly aggressive. The Invisible Man – which is excellent – is already available to stream after its Feb. 27 release, as is The Hunt, which saw its long-delayed release March 13 and enjoyed only one weekend in theaters. Sony’s Bloodshot, which also released March 13, has apparently been available since March 24 – at that same $20 pricetag. But Trolls World Tour is the only film I’m aware of that has essentially skipped its theatrical release, at least so far.

I obviously can’t recommend Trolls World Tour at $20. That’s more than the price of a PLF ticket before the closure, more than the per-month cost of a subscription to Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. But not every consumer thinks about these things the way I do – for a single-income nuclear family with 2.5 children, the youngest of whom always wants popcorn, $20 is a very cheap night at the movies.

Universal gambled that the promise of new content could allure enough families to make this a good financial move, and we’ll see how it works out. To match a $90 million budget and about $30 million in marketing costs would take 6 million streaming rentals, which is not a high number at all, and the real money for Trolls World Tour was always going to lie on the merchandising side anyway. Streaming numbers aren’t as reliable as box office numbers, but things seem to be going fine for the movie for now.

Maybe this inauspicious kid movie is the shape of things to come.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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