Review: ‘Trolls World Tour’ explores music history as it makes film history on demand

This image released by DreamWorks Animation shows characters Branch, voiced by Justin Timberlake, right, and Poppy, voiced by Anna Kendrick in a scene from “Trolls World Tour.” (DreamWorks Animation via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Trolls World Tour'

During normal times before the coronavirus, “Trolls World Tour” might have been quickly dismissed as a sequel to an animated film based on the preexisting brand of a toy line.

Yet during quarantine, it’s making history as the first major studio film released straight to digital, breaking the usual 90-day theatrical window by necessity at a time when other skittish studios are delaying their blockbuster releases until fall or even next year.

It was a smart move by Universal as families are home craving content to entertain the kids. “Trolls World Tour” accomplishes this with flying colors (quite literally), as the folks at DreamWorks Animation turn an animated journey into a unique music history lesson.

We pick up after Poppy and Branch saved their fellow Trolls from being eaten by the evil Bergens, who invaded Troll Village on the Trollstice holiday. This time, they discover six Troll tribes from six different lands representing six distinct genres of music: techno, rock, classical, country, funk and pop, which turns out to be the true identity of Troll Village.

Fans of the 2016 original will enjoy the return of familiar voices, including Anna Kendrick as the peppy Poppy, Justin Timberlake as the cynical Branch, James Corden as the worrywart Biggie, Ron Funches as the four-legged Cooper, Icona Pop as the conjoined-by-hair twin sisters Satin & Chenille and Kunal Nayyar as the glittery autotuned Guy Diamond.

Stealing the show in the pop realm is newcomer Kenan Thompson as the feisty chip-off-the-block Tiny Diamond, spitting memorable zingers despite limited screen time, while a parade of other star-studded celebrities turn up to represent each of the music kingdoms.

The antagonist is Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), the power-hungry daughter of King Thrash (Ozzy Osbourne), who rules the rock realm. She is a hard rocker waging a “world tour” blitzkrieg to invade other lands in search of mythical strings for the ultimate power chord.

Her victims include King Trollex (Anthony Ramos) of the techno realm, Trollzart (Gustavo Dudamel) and Pennywhistle (Charlyne Yi) of the classical realm, Delta Dawn (Kelly Clarkson) and Hickory (Sam Rockwell) of the country realm, and King Quincy (George Clinton), Queen Essence (Mary J. Blige) and Prince D (Anderson .Paak) of the funk realm.

Wait, aren’t there more than six genres? Yes, of course, but you have to draw boundaries for plot reasons. The film does its best to include others as bounty hunters of jazz (Jamie Dornan), reggae (J Ballin), K-Pop (Red Velvet), even yodeling (Flula Borg), as the self-deprecating script asks, “Where’s hip-hop? Your map is outdated. It still shows disco.”

Such moments provide subversive commentary as the naive Poppy is told that her scrapbook is wrong (“History is written by the winners”). This is an obvious nod to cultural appropriation by white music executives, as Eminem famously rapped, “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy.”

The message? Our cultural differences are what make our musical landscape so rich.

Hats off to director Walt Dohrn (“Shrek’s Yule Log”) for tackling such meaty topics under the guise of animation. In the 2016 original, Dohrn served as co-director for Mike Mitchell (“The Lego Movie 2”), but this time he leads co-director David P. Smith (“Shark Tale”).

While their vision includes the same glittery graphics, they oddly don’t include the Bergens at all, as Zooey Deschanel’s Bridget and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Gristle only appear briefly for a cameo during the end credits. It’s perfectly fine to explore new narrative territory, but it feels a bit odd to exclude such major characters from the beloved original.

No matter, the “Trolls” franchise mostly serves as a stage to create cool covers of existing popular tunes. Taking a cue from “Happy Feet” (2006), the original “Trolls” memorably remixed Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Phil Collins’ “True Colors” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.”

In “Trolls World Tour,” the soundtrack similarly remixes Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Parliament Funkadelic’s “Atomic Dog” and Heart’s “Barracuda,” but this time it makes more sense to the plot.

Like “School of Rock” (2003), the music history lesson is a clever way to introduce younger viewers to classic songs and open stubborn parents to other genres. Still, it’s hard to give remixes credit compared to the truly original work of “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992), “The Lion King” (1994) and “Moana” (2016).

To the film’s credit, it does offer a few originals, including SZA & Timberlake’s “The Other Side,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Born to Die” and Dierks Bentley’s “Leaving Lonesome Flats.” It all builds to a cast reunion on “Just Sing,” the climatic equivalent of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned an Oscar nod for Best Original Song.

Ultimately, the mix of original and existing music dilutes its place in movie history. Surely, “Trolls World Tour” didn’t set out to make history until world events made it so. Now, it will forever be the answer to quarantine trivia questions, potentially changing the industry.

Universal may have just let the genie out of the bottle in the ongoing war between theatrical vs. streaming. Just two years ago, titans like Steven Spielberg claimed streaming shouldn’t be nominated for Oscars. Now, the likes of Martin Scorsese have jumped on board with Netflix, earning 10 nominations for “The Irishman” (2019).

Will this be the new way of the future? Or will folks rush back to the theaters once “shelter in place” subsides? Let’s face it, the industry was already trending toward streaming due to technology and convenience — COVID-19 just accelerated it. The big screen, communal experience will always be the most ideal way to see a movie, but practicality always wins.

And so, there’s currently a $20 charge on my Amazon Prime, which I suppose is cheaper than two tickets to the movie theater. The rental lasts for 48 hours, the couch is certainly comfy and the popcorn is ready in the microwave. I just miss the cheers of the crowd.

Which brings us to a line a character said in “Trolls World Tour.” He refers to the “good old days” prior to the rock blitzkrieg as the “Before Times.” Clearly, DreamWorks Animation couldn’t have predicted the coronavirus, but the offhand comment is eerily prescient.

Hopefully, movies will heal our society like the trolls at the end of these films, turning our black-and-white state of depression into a colorful rediscovery of optimistic harmony.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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