Does any current studio adhere harder to a predetermined formula more than DreamWorks Animation? From the moment Trolls starts to build its world it’s incredibly obvious how the players will change, where the pieces will move around, and how it’ll wrap up. There’ll be an avalanche of pop culture references hammered in, a veritable example of square peg into a round hole, and a grab-bag of celebrity voice acting. Oh, and don’t forget that we need to send the audience out on a big dance party!
You know, for a film that features a naked character covered in glitter (and yes, he frequently farts glitter), Trolls does have a few bright spots. Namely, there’s a pleasing scrapbook and tactile quality to the design of the film. There’s a lot of creatures made up of yarn, buttons, and threads, and moments, far too intermittent, where the film transitions into a scrapbook-like play. It’s these few moments where a better, more adventurous Trolls movie pokes out.
It’s quickly subsumed by a soundtrack that’s filled with mashups and kid-friendly covers of pop tunes. Why is DreamWorks so obsessed with repurposing pop songs as anthems? The only time this really works in Trolls is in a quiet, emotional moment when our grumpy character sings to a crestfallen sunny one. That song, “True Colors,” is already an emotionally packed song, and one that is just vague enough to work in a variety of contexts and moods.
Notice that I haven’t talked about the script for Trolls yet, and there’s a valid reason for that. It’s the thinnest gruel, a combination of hero’s journey, love story, and musical adventure that’s cliché from the word go. Will the sunny character learn the value of other emotions? You bet. Will the grumpy one regain his vibrancy after exposing his Tragic Backstory™ and joining up with the sunny one? Absolutely. Will the villains house a sympathetic character that helps our heroes and works through her own emotional arch? Yep, got that too.
Calling Trolls a cliché feels somehow an insult to clichés. Trolls is straight-up rolled off of the assembly line, and super-engineered to entertain the tots and sell a ton of merchandise. DreamWorks has franchising in mind here, and they’ve barely bothered to conceal that aim. They made a movie with just enough personality to guarantee solid box office returns, a spinoff tv show, and a sequel (or three).