Rather than postpone the theatrical release of “Trolls World Tour” like many studios have in the wake of COVID-19, Universal Pictures opted for same-day digital rental availability. In these troubled times of self-isolation and uncertainty, sometimes it’s best to bask under the rainbow. Walt Dohrn’s “Trolls” sequel – based on Thomas Dam’s doll collection of the same name – intensifies the neon spectacle and pumps out even more saccharine messaging. Although it took five screenwriters to tackle this kid-centric adventure, somehow Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Elizabeth Tippet, and Wallace Wolodarsky balance unifying themes of acceptance with a relatively accurate assessment of the dark side of music history.
No longer a source of appetite for the Bergens, the pop Trolls continue their blissful tradition of breaking out into sporadic jukebox medleys in peace. When not singing, these fantastical woodland creatures envelop one another in warm hugs of friendship affirmation. Honestly, what could soothe the pangs of loneliness better than such an open display of neighborly affection?
Of course, conflict quickly arises when Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) learns that the Troll Kingdom encompasses more than just the territory she presides over. The kingdom was divided long ago by ancestral trolls of various musical backgrounds. Each state within the kingdom houses an ancient “string” relic representing their respective zone’s music genre: Pop, Classical, Hard Rock, Funk, Country, or Techno. At present, Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Hard Rock Trolls hopes to collect all six strings so that her fiefdom’s music will monopolize and subsequently eradicate the rest. In other words, Queen Barb has a diabolical plan to “Make Troll Kingdom Rock Again.”
Naive to the unknown expanded world and troll mischief in front of her, Poppy nevertheless forges ahead in the hopes of diplomatic resolution. At her side, despite perceiving situations in the opposite shade is friend and confidante, Branch (Justin Timberlake), who secretly pines after Poppy but becomes dejected once she inadvertently “friend zones” him. Branch and Poppy’s differing outlooks on life make them an ideal partnership, each challenging the other to see past their inherent stubbornness. Branch’s stern pragmatism and Poppy’s determined optimism make them a classic animated duo worthy of heroic respect. Timberlake especially impresses once again with his voice-acting chops, deriving complexity with his brooding delivery before showcasing vulnerability through song.
Speaking of the former NSYNC frontman, his work as the film’s music supervisor bolsters juvenile content into a party for all ages. While this soundtrack is more ballad-prone than the former, there is enough promising gems to potentially warrant an Academy Award nomination. None pop as rousingly as Oscar nominee “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” but if one does break through, it will be Kelly Clarkson’s “Born to Die” (co-written by Timberlake and Chris Stapleton).
The “American Idol” winner voices Delta Dawn, leader of the Country Trolls, who gives Poppy and company a valuable lesson on lyrical and melodic value extending beyond the happy-go-lucky tune. Much like the sobering rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” from the first movie, “Born to Die” cuts through the heart so severely that it almost seems out of place in a franchise steeply infused with pep. Yet, that wild contrast is what makes the tragic ballad so brilliant, and seeing Clarkson perform it on the Oscar stage would indeed be an American delight.
Not everything is gumdrops and lullabies in this flashy follow-up. For someone with multifaceted talent like Rachel Bloom, it’s infuriating to see her skill set go to waste voicing one of the blander animated villains of late. Queen Barb’s insidious motivations are hazy at best, her endgame goal seemingly less about world domination than it is spreading the continuous gospel of rock n’ roll. Even Bloom’s dynamic singing abilities are curtailed to benefit exhausted rock covers. With characterization going as deep as being the one prickly nail in a sea of pillows, Bloom’s Barb pales in comparison to the bumbling yet freakish threat of the Bergens.
While children will marvel at the lavish visuals and button-cute characters, adults will nod in deference to how well the story uses satire. The fantasy fable illuminates the way pop music is less of a diverse amalgamation than it is a cultural appropriation that dilutes original artistry. “Trolls World Tour” recognizes America’s problematic music past and isn’t afraid to expose the truth while delivering heartfelt lessons. Throw in a legendary rock icon cameo with a winning soundtrack, and audiences have themselves the perfect at-home movie concert to lift quarantine spirits.
DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour” is distributed by Universal Pictures and is available on-demand beginning today, Apr. 10, 2020.