100 min., rated PG.
For a belated feature-length tie-in with the Good Luck Trolls brand, “Trolls” is Dreamworks Animation’s bid to make the almost-creepy furry-haired dolls a fad again, and it’s actually not intolerable or cynical as one would have judged. One could have feared the worst, a made-by-committee attempt to be hip with grating, flash-in-the-pan Top 40 covers and pop-culture references that, by the third “Shrek” sequel, were stale as could be. Next to other studio-made computer-animated features, “Trolls” is a second-tier, less memorable effort, but too buoyant to write off and admirably bizarre and idiosyncratic around the edges for a kid’s movie, not far off from 2014’s Laika-produced “The Boxtrolls.” It’s slight but cute as a button.
The tiny Trolls have no worries in the world, as they live to sing and dance and hug and then sing and dance and hug some more. However, their lifestyle hasn’t always been that way, residing near a town of large, miserable ogres known as Bergens, who have instituted “Trollstice,” a holiday in which they get to be happy one day out of the year by eating a tasty troll. On that day in Bergen Town, Prince Gristle (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) was eagerly awaiting to taste his first Troll for his coronation, but due to the Trolls escaping underground, King Gristle (John Cleese) banished the Chef (Christine Baranski) into the wilderness. Twenty years later, the perpetually optimistic Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is the princess of the Trolls. Against the warning by paranoid party-pooper Branch (Justin Timberlake), who lives alone in a bunker, the Trolls have a celebration that soon attracts the attention of Chef, who comes stomping through and scoops by a bunch of Poppy’s pals into her fanny pack. Life may not always be “cupcakes and rainbows” for a Troll, but Poppy and Branch—with their good attitude and cautious approach, respectively—will have to go on a rescue mission before the Bergens get a taste of happiness.
A spry, breezy if fluffy confection, “Trolls” may not have higher aims than to simply entertain, but entertain, it certainly does. Beyond recognizable name value, the film does have a story, as grimly wrongheaded as it sounds, but it is more about the vibrant characters with multi-purpose hair and a steady stream of clever visual gags and rapid-fire one-liners. As directed by Mike Mitchell (2011’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”) and Walt Dohrn, from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger (2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3”), the film sends out a positive, well-meaning message—one has to find happiness in him and herself rather than material things—without feeling forced. It’s also light in tone, albeit with a weird, slightly macabre streak that might result in parents having some explaining to do on the ride home after the show. Through all of this is an oddly delightful “Cinderella”-esque subplot involving Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), Prince Gristle’s scullery maid, undergoing a make-over by Poppy and her soon-to-be-cooked friends and being fed romantic lines from her rainbow-colored wig, with very funny results.
Before culminating in an ensemble musical number of Justin Timberlake’s original earworm “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” that practically dares one to not get up and get down, “Trolls” is contagiously foot-tapping in frequent doses. Poppy cover songs, including mash-ups of “Move Your Meet/D.A.N.C.E./It’s a Sunshine Day” and “I’m Coming Out/Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” are fun. The use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” is very amusing, too, and there is also a quiet, touching version of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” led by Timberlake. Conversely, with so many popular songs staged as slick animated music videos, it loses all longevity to have a chance at being timeless. The easy highlight is Anna Kendrick, who’s evidently incapable of being adorable and conveying a sense of honest-to-goodness joy, even when she’s not physically on screen but acting in a vocal booth. As fetchingly voiced by the likable talent, Poppy is chirpy and upbeat, somehow never allowing this character (or her affinity for scrapbooking with glitter) to turn annoying or cloying. As the yin to Poppy’s yang, Timberlake calls less attention to himself in a good way as Branch, his character arc registering as the most affecting. Other standouts in the voice cast are Christine Baranski, a fiendish hoot as Chef, and Zooey Deschanel, conveying a genuine pathos as put-upon scullery maid Bridget who pines after Prince Gristle.
Grade: B -