Trolls World Tour is singing Infinity War's tune without the stakes: Review
The sequel continues the musical fun of its predecessor, but loses some of the danger.
We should all know the template by now: After a franchise succeeds with an individual story, the next step is a huge crossover event. As a follow-up to the surprisingly popular 2016 hit Trolls, Trolls World Tour strongly resembles latter Marvel Cinematic Universe installments like Avengers: Infinity War, and not just because its plot revolves around six magical artifacts that can unite to produce nigh-unlimited power.
Like its predecessor, Trolls World Tour is loosely based on the Troll dolls that fell in and out of fashion over the last few decades. In this interpretation, the Trolls are pretty closely associated with music; they love singing and dancing and would do it all day if they could. In the first film, this put them at odds with the monstrous Bergens, who went through life joylessly and decided the only way they could achieve happiness was by eating Trolls. But in Trolls World Tour, we learn that our heroes Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake) are actually members of a very specific Troll tribe: Pop Trolls. No wonder they love Cyndi Lauper so much!
There are five other main genres of Trolls: Hard Rock, Techno, Classical, Country, and Funk (subgenres too small to justify their own kingdom, like Smooth Jazz and K-Pop, are represented instead by a handful of stateless mercenaries). Like the Infinity Stones, each of these six kingdoms possesses a uniquely powerful artifact in the form of a String that channels the power of their particular music. The role of Thanos is played by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), who will stop at nothing to assemble all six Strings and homogeneously unite all Trolls under the banner of Hard Rock. The parallels to the last 20 years of music critic debates about “rockism” are pretty funny, and the lessons about the importance of learning to live with difference are surely useful to young viewers in an era of social crisis. When Poppy first hears of the other Trolls, she declares, “differences don’t matter!” Her dad, King Peppy (now voiced by director Walt Dohrn, stepping in for the disgraced Jeffrey Tambor) would rather hide from those who are different; Poppy’s angry declaration that “he may be fine where everyone lives in isolation, but I’m not” certainly has a different ring to it these days. Over the course of the movie, Poppy learns an equally important lesson from the Funk Trolls: Though everyone deserves equal respect, differences should be honored for how they make us who we are.
Trolls loves punching above its pop-culture weight class; just as the first film introduced antagonist King Gristle by filming his tricycle ride through the castle like Danny Torrance riding around the Overlook Hotel, Trolls World Tour features Queen Barb’s forces riding to conquest in spiky black vehicles like a monster-truck phalanx out of Mad Max. And yet, these malefactors are not nearly as dangerous as the first film’s Bergens. Barb’s threat of forcing everyone to listen to hard rock forever is several degrees of abstraction removed from the Bergens literally wanting to put the trolls in a pot and eat them for dinner. The Infinity Stone shenanigans of Trolls World Tour loses some of the visceral stakes and Grimm fairy tale-style danger of the original.
On top of that, Trolls World Tour shares with Frozen 2 the dilemma of not knowing what to do with its male lead when the adventurous female protagonist takes care of all the typical “chosen one,” “reckoning with secret dark lineage,” and “learning important life lesson” beats. Both films make the same unfortunate choice: Like Kristoff, Branch is left to languish in an overdone subplot about being lovesick and unable to express your feelings to your best friend. Except resorting to a love storyline makes even less sense in a world where Trolls like Guy Diamond (Kunal Nayyar) appear perfectly capable of reproducing asexually and platonic friendship is depicted as a world-altering force; when Poppy makes a pinky promise with her buddy Biggie (James Corden), it literally sends a shockwave through the fabric of reality.
The vocal cast still impresses: New additions like Kelly Clarkson and Anderson Paak provide a breath of fresh air, celebrity cameos like Mary J. Blige and Ozzy Osbourne fit perfectly as the grand poobahs of their respective genres, and Bloom’s “what if Wayne’s World but evil” schtick never gets too annoying (plus there's some fun to be had with the brief cameos by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, which fulfill the promise of their hilarious podcast The McElroy Brothers Will Be In Trolls World Tour) The jukebox music choices are well-selected — except for "Who Let the Dogs Out," whose appearance may make you wonder if you've fallen through a wormhole back to the early 2000s — though it’s doubtful the new originals can stack up to the world-conquering “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”
Despite falling for some classic sequel potholes, Trolls World Tour continues the fun energy of its predecessor in a way that should provide some quarantine relief for families. The scene of the Smooth Jazz Troll (Jamie Dornan) serenading Poppy and Branch into a psychedelic spirit journey full of Lisa Frank-style drawings and "paralyzing smoothness" is almost worth the price of admission alone. B-
Trolls World Tour