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Trolls: Party Edition

DreamWorks Animation (November 4th, 2016), 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (February 7th, 2017), 1 Blu-ray + 1 DVD, 93 minutes plus supplements, 16:9 2.35:1 ratio, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Rated PG, Retail: $36.99

Storyboard:

Once each year, the grotesque Bergens–miserable creatures who don’t know how to sing or dance–feast on the fun-loving Trolls. The reason? Eating a Troll is the only way that a Bergen can experience happiness. But the Trolls fled their homeland many years ago, and the care-free Princess Poppy is convinced that the Bergens are no longer a threat, despite the constant warnings of Branch, the grouchiest Troll of them all. Unfortunately, Branch turns out to be right, and when the evil Bergen Chef kidnaps several of her friends, she enlists him to join her on a quest to save them before they all become snacks.


The Sweatbox Review:

Of all of the projects that DreamWorks Animation has announced over the years, Trolls was probably the one that was met with the most head scratches. The franchise–if we can even call it that–had been mostly dead for quite a few years, following an extremely short-lived TV series in 2005 that re-imagined the Trolls as teenage girls in high school (Jeez, DIC Entertainment has made some pretty silly stuff in their time, haven’t they?). For the most part, Trolls has really only ever been successful as a toy line, one that was at its biggest in the late 80’s and early 90’s (although I only remember having one of them as a kid, which I got as a favor at a birthday party), so it was a bit curious that the studio behind acclaimed hits like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon decided to make a major motion picture about them some two decades after the height of their popularity.



So it might be something of an understatement to say that Trolls was greeted with a fair amount of skepticism (some would probably say a more accurate word would be “dread”) prior to its release, with many eager to write it off as an extended toy commercial and nothing more. Perhaps because of this, I had a hunch when it came out that it could end up having a “love it or hate it” reaction from certain audiences. The very reasons that fans would like the film would be the very same reasons that others would be unable to stand it, depending on what their personal tastes on tiny woodland dolls with colorful Afros singing pop songs are. But then something rather unexpected happened: Trolls was a hit not just with critics, but with audiences as well, becoming one of DreamWorks Animation’s most successful movies in years. Its soundtrack was arguably an even bigger home run for them, with the chart-topping Can’t Stop the Feeling! even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Trolls may have been a fad from the past, but people really seemed to like their movie, and it’s notable that a sequel has already been announced for 2020 even though the studio being purchased by Comcast last year made that seem unlikely at one point (especially after The Croods 2 was unceremoniously and abruptly cancelled despite being well into production).



Part of the reason for this may have been timing. Trolls opened towards the end of what had been a particularly stressful year for many, and regardless of whatever your political affiliations are, I think it’s uncontroversial to say that elections have a way of bringing out the worst in people (on both sides of the aisle). The filmmakers even said in an interview just before the movie’s release that they wanted to make an “anti-Election year” film, and if you think about it in the non-political context they were going for, it kinda shows. Trolls is essentially a fight against negativity of all sorts, but it also has an ace up its sleeve: it’s aware that it might be kind of annoying, and it’s willing to make fun of that in order for you to enjoy it. But, more importantly, it also doesn’t care. Trolls is unabashedly, almost defiantly non-cynical, a film in which all of the characters–with the exception of the villains–are ultimately sympathetic. Even the supposedly nasty Bergens, who wish to gobble up the film’s heroes, are only trying to do so because they want to be happy.



All of this may be why, at the end of the day, Trolls won me over. While no one is likely to proclaim it an instant classic like Frozen or Inside Out, it succeeds at what it’s trying to do, and it probably worked to the film’s advantage that many walked into the theater with at least somewhat low expectations for it. Like last year’s equally enjoyable Sing, it indulges in simple pleasures, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and the movie succeeds because of its familiarity rather than in spite of it. Trolls is the cinematic equivalent of candy: not particularly meaty or filling, but still satisfying to consume.



A big part of the movie’s appeal, of course, comes from its aforementioned soundtrack. Trolls is the first true musical DreamWorks has made since 1998’s The Prince of Egypt (which was nearly 20 years ago!), featuring a variety of tunes both original and classic. Some of these songs, for better or for worse, last only about a minute, which may make those still weary from surviving Strange Magic recoil from its similar usage of pop hits. Fortunately, the film knows how to use its music for both energy and laughs (an out-of-nowhere rendition of The Sound of Silence earns giggles for its surrealism alone), but it also helps that the voice cast consists of really good singers, particularly Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, who between the two of them are responsible for the movie’s four major musical numbers.


By now you’ve no doubt heard Can’t Stop the Feeling! over and over again whether you’ve seen Trolls or not, though I was relieved when I first saw it in theaters that it was actually used in the film itself, rather than just playing over the end credits as so many of these songs seem to end up doing. It works perfectly as a grand finale to the movie, wrapping everything up with a nice, happy little bow, and you’re all but guaranteed to have it stuck in your head when everything’s over regardless of how many times you’ve heard it. But working just as well–and possibly even more fun as a musical number–is Get Back Up Again, which is performed by Kendrick in the first act. This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to DreamWorks doing a Disney-style showstopper in this day and age, with Kendrick’s Princess Poppy somehow surviving one near-death experience after another (including being eaten alive) while being determined to maintain her happiness and good spirits. The entire sequence is filled with lively visuals–the various creatures who attack Poppy look like something straight out of a Jen Henson production–and Kendrick’s vocals are spot-on, providing the song with just enough of a comedic edge as the situation grows more and more unpleasant for her tiny heroine.



Kendrick is absolutely wonderful as Poppy, a Troll who’s so consistently and genuinely cheerful that it would’ve been easy to simply play her as one-dimensional or even obnoxious. Yet Kendrick makes her bouncy optimism perfectly natural, her voice full of compassion and empathy, which makes her easy to root for even when she occasionally behaves foolishly (the abduction of her pals, on some level, is more or less her fault). Equally terrific is Zooey Deschanel, who’s almost unrecognizable as Bridget, a lovesick Bergen who she voices with such vulnerability that your heart almost instantly goes out to her (Deschanel received an Annie Award nomination for the role). Working as a good contrast to them is Timberlake, who gets to voice an almost consistently sarcastic character that plays to his strengths vocally, which is nice to see after he was woefully misused in 2007’s Shrek the Third. The rest of the voice actors–-including Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Russell Brand and a delightfully nasty Christine Baranski-–all do fine work, even if Jeffery Tambor and John Cleese are essentially doing glorified cameos (though Cleese’s character informing his heartbroken son that he’s “never going to be happy” is one of the film’s comedic highlights, managing to be simultaneously hilarious and depressing).



As is usually the case with DreamWorks, the animation is excellent. Produced in the widescreen format, Trolls looks like a giant coloring book, with its lush landscapes practically bursting off the screen. The world of the Bergens, meanwhile, almost resembles a Gothic fairy tale, filled with twisted village buildings and castle towers which bring to mind the bleaker work of Don Bluth (on multiple occasions, oddly enough, I was reminded of certain scenes from A Troll in Central Park). The Trolls themselves are also simple but pretty cool creations, resembling the toys just enough while still looking like original characters.



Trolls could be considered an “anti-DreamWorks film,” even as it maintains their trademark sense of humor (I have a friend who isn’t normally a fan of the studio who told me she was very glad she gave the movie a try). It’s constantly playful, zippy, fun, and easy to like, delivering big laughs along with a surprisingly poignant message that kids and adults can take something home from. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (if you’ve found the film’s trailers obnoxious, you might want to steer clear!), if you’re willing to go along with its simple charms, you should have a smile on your face by the time the end credits roll.



Is This Thing Loaded?

Trolls opens with trailers for The Boss Baby (judge me all you like, this film looks funny), Sing, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, and Home: Season Two on Netflix, but a special mention must be given to the latter preview, as it ends with a surprise “sneak peek” for…an upcoming series based on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Titled Spirit: Riding Free, the show involves Spirit becoming best friends with a teenage girl, and yes, it looks just as insane as it sounds. I’m not sure how popular the movie is with kids today (Spirit turns 15 this year, and yes, you are that old), but this feels more like a wannabe Barbie series than an authentic DreamWorks project, and the fact that the humans appear to be wearing modern clothing doesn’t help matters. Other previews which can be accessed from the main menu include Kung Fu Panda 3 and Home.



Now we move on to the goodies, where the first batch of which unfortunately turned out to be a frustrating affair for me. Trolls comes with several “Party Mode” features in which the viewer will press various buttons on the remote control in order to “make something happen” during the movie. This apparently includes making glitter appear on the screen and summoning a character to “give them a high five.” All of these features, however, refused to work on my player, as in whenever I tried something the movie would freeze and I would have to reboot everything. Now, I should perhaps note that my player was purchased in 2009, so all of its technology might not be fully on par with what’s out there today. In any case, the “party” was over for me very quickly.

Next up, we have Travel Through Troll Village, a brief featurette hosted by Cloud Guy (consider him the film’s equivalent to Flash in Zootopia) in which he introduces the movie’s Trolls. There’s not particularly much to this one, although there is some concept art sprinkled throughout, so that’s something, I guess. Far more interesting is The Potion for Stop-Motion, which explores how the film’s scrapbook sequences were brought to life. This was primarily the work of a single DreamWorks artist, who created “arts and crafts” versions of the characters by hand before animating the scenes using stop-motion on sheets of paper. Pretty neat stuff! It lasts about five minutes.



Moving along, we have Creating Troll Magic. This explores the look of the film–including the decision to have the Trolls wear clothing instead of going around naked–and has a extended section about how the Sound of Silence scene was animated. It’s pleasant and informative, but is sadly not terribly long, running about four minutes. Next, we have a trio of Deleted Scenes. These are all given short director introductions, and are in various stages of animation. One of them is an early bit involving Princess Poppy’s father that was cut because it made him seem too stupid, while another is an extremely brief bit–which is fully animated–that has Poppy trying on dresses for her coronation. The most notable of the scenes is easily a villain song for Christine Baranski’s Chef, which is a sad loss as it would’ve potentially been a fun addition for her character. All of the scenes play together in a single featurette that runs roughly seven minutes.



We are sadly already nearly done with the bonus features. What we do have left is Troll 2 Troll, a series of promotional shorts for the film in which Poppy and Branch debate various random topics. They all clock together at about five minutes. Next up, we have Inside the Bunker, which is another Cloud Guy “tour” which is even briefer and less inconsequential than the first one, wrapping up at around three minutes. Lastly, a Theatrical Trailer (which is always appreciated as an extra) is also included, along with the usual World of DreamWorks Animation section which is a series of previews and such for the studio’s other titles. No audio commentary is included, but more baffling is the complete lack of a Can’t Stop the Feeling! music video, which would’ve seemed like an inevitable inclusion after what a phenomenon the song became.



Case Study:

Trolls arrives in a bright slipcover that some might feel is a bit…crowded, as it seemed someone behind it wanted to cram all of the movie’s characters on it. There’s a glitter effect on the title that makes it look “brighter” when viewed in a certain light. Also, I’m not sure where DreamWorks was getting the math from for the “45 minutes+ of Blu-ray features” that is advertised on the back of the package, but perhaps they were including trailers (or some of the interactive features) when they made that claim. Inserts with directions for the “Party Mode” as well as an advertisement for the film’s mobile game can also be found inside, along with a digital copy code.



Ink And Paint:

Trolls is a brand new big budget animated film taken directly from the digital source, so of course it looks fantastic on disc. Colors are extremely crisp, with no notable issues to be found anywhere, and the movie always looks bright enough even during “darker” moments. Nothing to complain about here.



Scratch Tracks:

Once again, Trolls is a brand new movie, so it’s no surprise that it sounds great. As is often the case on my television, the songs are a bit louder than the rest of the film, but overall, everything is very nicely balanced out. French and Spanish language tracks are also included.



Final Cut:

We live in a culture that is becoming more and more dominated by cynicism. Optimism is too often brushed aside as idiotic, and negative opinions are frequently seen as having more merit than positive ones. On some level, I’m almost embarrassed by how much I love Trolls, but as an antidote to the world’s many hostilities, it works wonders as uplifting escapism. It’s a bit of a shame there aren’t more extras included, as a commentary track would’ve been appreciated, along with maybe a few more featurettes. Still, the film looks and sounds great, and it works well for repeated viewings on nights when you don’t feel like something depressing. Trolls may not be the most hair-raising film you can see, but it’s pleasant, breezy, and full of heart. And that’s good enough for me.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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