Fifteen years have passed since DreamWorks Animation burst onto the scene with the game-changing blockbuster Shrek. Since then the animation studio has remained popular and lucrative (indeed outlasting its live action counterpart), despite changing home studios a few times and seeing the quality of its output suffer as a result of such instability. In fact, other than the magnificent How to Train Your Dragon films, their output the last several years has been hit or miss at best. Their last attempt to revive an old property for a new generation, 2014’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was serviceably sweet but unremarkable. Despite this DreamWorks Animation (now distributed by Fox, also the home of Ice Age and The Peanuts Movie’s Blue Sky Studios) is doubling down on the nostalgia with their latest release Trolls.
Trolls brings the wild-haired and famously naked little plastic figures to life in an upbeat, colorful story full of popular music. The Trolls’ happy life is thrown into upheaval when giant, troll-eating monsters called Bergens discover their home, kidnapping some of them and forcing the rest into hiding. Princess Poppy, the happiest troll in the kingdom (a perfectly cast Anna Kendrick) sets out to rescue her friends, getting help from unlikely ally Branch (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be the unhappiest troll. Hijinks, music, and of course happiness ensue as the Trolls set off on their adventure.
It’s hard to be cynical about a movie that oozes happiness and positivity from every second of its economical 90-minute runtime. Indeed, Trolls might go down as one of the most positively charged movies ever made. The message of finding happiness within yourself is presented in a way that could not possibly be lost on its young target audience. One might argue that the film takes a bit too light of a touch with such a surprisingly heavy subject matter. But Trolls is a movie that takes the easy way out because it has to. It’s never heavy-handed because it doesn’t need to be. This is where the conflict lies: Trolls as a weighty treatise on overcoming depression could be legitimately more impactful, but it would be an overreach for such a bright and sunny child-oriented film. Trolls keeps it light and fun and full of songs and hugs and kid-appropriate lessons about happiness and friendship.
Trolls may take the easy way out with its subject matter, but never in a way that’s condescending or inappropriate to its young audience. It’s never daring in a way that Pixar and Disney movies of late have been, or even its DreamWorks stablemate HTTYD, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t think its audience can handle it. It’s perhaps closer in tone to Universal’s Illumination films (The Secret Life of Pets, the Despicable Me series), in that it is fun and generally positive, though Trolls is a bit more willing to “go there”, even if not all the way. Trolls is bright and happy because Trolls are supposed to be bright and happy, and sometimes that’s okay too. In the echelon of recent animated films, Trolls never quite reaches the lofty heights of the films mentioned above, though it is notably more engaging than many of DreamWorks’ last few films. But instead of being hamstrung by its limitations of having to keep it “cute”, it embraces them and even figures out how to use them to its advantage. Trolls is light-hearted, positive, thoughtful, and appropriate (if to a fault) to both its audience and its colorful characters.