The wooden troll figures that Thomas Dam began carving and selling in the ‘50s had a great deal of folklore behind them but no cast of fixed characters. Though the Trolls have since been in TV specials, video games and a short-lived series, none of those have established what we might call canon, so DreamWorks’ animated feature-length adaptation is starting from scratch. Trolls is a pretty standard piece of subpar DreamWorks product: loud and shiny, more than a tad frantic despite a generic set of characters, written and directed by in-house lifers. Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is the ceaselessly upbeat monarch-to-be of an annoyingly peppy Troll kingdom. The happy creatures’ enemies are the miserable Bergens, who eat the Trolls once a year — it is, they say, the only way they can achieve happiness.
The Trolls finally flee, but their new home is discovered after 20 years of peace. Plucky Poppy must rescue them while teaching the Bergens that, with a little emotional willpower, anyone can find happiness within themselves. Obviously, no one’s going to make an animated film aimed at pubescents explaining that clinical depression is a real thing and no, not everybody gets to be happy — still, this is obnoxious and cynical.
This romance is between Poppy and grumpy Branch (Justin Timberlake), who refuses to participate in communal song-and-dance sessions; as is her duty, she gradually cajoles him into fun and romance. A parallel narrative of desire focuses on Bergen Prince Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who grows up miserable in a Troll-less existence — minutes before his very first Troll feast, the tasty creatures flee. When he whines that “my father said the first time should be special,” the language is weirdly sexual, as if dad had personally escorted his kid down to the brothel. Don’t worry, he finds love in the end.
The movie’s insistence on pairing everyone off in heteronormative couples — indeed, noting that that’s the only place happiness comes from — is predictably dogmatic. The insistence that everyone must be happy right now is the very opposite of Inside Out, with potentially beneficial Sadness once again ordered out of the room. Poppy teaches the Bergens that they can find happiness without eating Trolls — they just need to dance and make out, basically. That screws the marketing team a little bit: You don’t need Trolls to be happy, but you should still go buy a bunch right now. DreamWorks Animation is no slouch in the tie-in department, but this is the first time it’s outright bought (for an undisclosed fee) an entire pre-existing toy franchise; big things, presumably, are expected.
The jukebox-musical soundtrack is a nightmare assemblage of all the worst trends of current overproduced FM radio, some of which are far past their use-by date (check out those fake record scratches!), complete with an empowerment ballad moment (“Get Back Up Again”) that’s the most noxious manifestation of the film’s palpably insincere optimism: Good things always happen because they do! None of this matters: The kids at the press screening seemed to dig it.
Starring Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, Gwen Stefani, James Corden, and Russell Brand. Directed by Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn. 92 minutes. Rated PG. Opens wide Friday, November 4.