The plot of the “Trolls” movie is a blend of puns and old hat storytelling, with a rotten message at its center. In a land where giant, revolting creatures named Bergens lurk nearby, there’s a tree full of small, adorable trolls. Whereas the Bergens are glum and hungry, the trolls are constantly singing, happy and full of inner sparkle. With the approach of the annual “Trollstice” (Get it? Troll-stice?! Hilarious right? Right? Bueller…), the Bergens plan to raid the tree and eat the trolls. More specifically, these hulking monsters plan to pluck the trolls out their habitat and eat them alive in front of one another.
In addition to a creepy and kind of ghastly premise, there’s the overall moral to the story. The trolls are constantly reminding the Bergens that, even though eating trolls is the only thing that makes them happy, you can’t find happiness from food. Since the trolls are walking/talking embodiments of merriment, it can be said that the trolls are telling the Bergens that they can’t eat their feelings. Great, a movie that aims to fat shame children.
The message is a slap in the face for its intended audience. The Bergens are fairly stupid, overweight, have bad teeth and are ugly. Yes, encouraging children (and everyone else) to eat right and maintain good hygiene is a good thing. However, since the Bergens are stand-ins for the audience members who eat junk food (and, in an unintentional commentary, also stand-ins for those willing to endure “Trolls”), the moral comes across with more contempt than caution.
Other than being a movie to play for children to watch while you fold laundry, “Trolls” is a complete waste of time. The voice talent involved isn’t given stellar material and the much-hyped soundtrack is better experienced outside of watching the actual movie. Despite being cast as the lead character, Justin Timberlake’s sad sack role doesn’t give him much to sink his teeth into. The appeal here isn’t Timberlake the actor (used to great effect in “The Social Network”) but Timberlake the pop superstar and the movie sells him short in this area, too. Timberlake doesn’t sing until the very end of the movie, as his “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is shoe horned into the overly busy climax.
About that final sequence: it’s one of the most lazily anti-climactic endings in memory, a rushed series of events that go by so fast, it’s like the trolls were ushering me out of the theater.
Aside from Timberlake’s undeniably catchy, ubiquitous “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the music is mostly uninspired redos of FM classics. “Trolls’ plays like a candy colored, no less obnoxious “Happy Feet,” as the characters are not endearing, the story is predictable and it works overtime to be hip for children. The animation isn’t that great, either. Playing Timberlake’s troll love interest is Anna Kendrick. She sounds like she’s trying too hard, while many of her co-stars aren’t trying hard enough.
The one good scene comes at the top of the third act, in which Kendrick and Timberlake finally sing their soulful variation on Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” As the song plays, the lyrics revive our literally colorless heroes. It’s a striking image and the song effectively compliments the moment.
Clearly, something special can be made of movies that are obvious extensions of an old product. Last spring’s “The Angry Birds Movie” wasn’t a crass spin-off of the game and is among the better CGI comedies of the year. When it was first announced that Disney was making a movie based on their “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme park ride, it struck me as a bad idea. What could have been an instant flop became one of the most beloved live action adventure movies in the company’s history. The key is to provide something new and approach the established material with a fresh vision. “Trolls,” on the other hand, is the bare minimum, a formula movie that doesn’t even like its intended audience.
Rather than finding something clever or even radical to say about the ubiquitous Troll dolls, “Trolls” is as authentic as a newly minted, heavily auto-tuned track off a boy band album. Someone please stop the trend before we have to endure the Chia Pet movie.
One and a Half Stars
–originally published in MAUIWatch