As the first major Hollywood movie — and, in fact, the only one — since the outbreak of the coronavirus to bow out of its scheduled theatrical release and reposition itself on a home-viewing platform, “Trolls World Tour” has the chance to be a bigger event than it might have otherwise. Or maybe a smaller one. (Or maybe both at once.) What’s undeniable is that the film now stands, in a way that no one was ever planning on, as the one and only new mainstream commercial release that movie-starved audiences will get a chance to see in April.
That said, there may be less significance to its changed circumstances than you might think. When Universal first announced that its sequel to “Trolls” would bypass theaters altogether, some observers took it as the proverbial crack in the theatrical window they’d been waiting for — the first domino to fall in an increasingly tense cold war, the one between movie studios and exhibitors over the issue of how long a film should be allowed to play in theaters before it’s made available for home viewing.
Yet now that “Trolls World Tour” is here (it will be available on demand starting Friday, April 10), it looks less like the spark of a revolution than like a semi-repeat of something that has already happened without anyone blinking an eye. To wit: Last year, Disney decided, without fanfare, to release its live-action “Lady and the Tramp” not in theaters (the original plan) but as a streaming exclusive to help bolster the launch of Disney Plus. That happened, and the world went on as is.
What the world probably felt, implicitly (or explicitly, to anyone who saw the film), is that “Lady and the Tramp” was a decidedly minor example of what was already an aesthetically dubious endeavor: the strip-mining of Disney animated classics for live-action remakes. True, some of those films have been major hits, like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” But how much did it matter, in the scheme of things, that “Lady and the Tramp” would be seen only at home? Maybe not at all.
In the case of “Trolls World Tour,” it might have mattered — a bit — if the film were as sparkly, enchanting, and all-out maniacal fun as “Trolls,” the 2016 dolls-R-us fantasy that I wasn’t alone in finding to be one of the singular animated pleasures of the last decade. No, it wasn’t a heady artistic masterpiece like “Inside Out.” Yet it was the rare kiddie movie that gave off an incandescent buzz of joy.
“Trolls World Tour,” which was made by one of the original film’s directors, Walt Dohrn (now co-directing with David P. Smith), has the same delectably tactile and distinctive eye-candy look as “Trolls”; it’s set in a storybook kingdom that’s all sweetness and light and glitter and fuzz and bursting psychedelic pastels. And since a key element of the first film’s charm was how unabashedly it used pop music not just as the usual aural wallpaper but to color in the ecstatic spirit of the Trolls, “Trolls World Tour,” as its title suggests, is even more of a music-drenched fairy tale.
Yet for all its surface pleasures, it’s a likable but underimagined one, with more enthusiasm than surprise and, at the same time, an overprogrammed sense of its own thematic destiny.
The film opens with a hypnotically cool-looking land of Trolls that’s different from the one before — a darkly pulsating Day-Glo nightclub kingdom that turns out to be the home of the Techno Trolls, an enraptured tribe of disco revelers. Their rave is then invaded by spaceships designed like mini-dungeons. They’re a fleet led by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), monarch of the Hard Rock Trolls. A heavy-metal hellion in a red mohawk, wearing fishnets and three thick hoop earrings, she’s a self-styled demon goddess of hard rock, and she has arrived, with villainous fervor, to stamp out any music that is not her own. “We’re all going to have the same vibe,” she announces, sounding like Jack Black crossed with Joan Jett merged with Maleficent. “We’re all going to be one nation of Trolls — under rock!”
If you sense a rather loud metaphor for the intolerance of others, you’d be right. And in “Trolls World Tour,” the metaphor doesn’t end there. Our eager, floppy-pink-haired heroine, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), is now queen of the Trolls (or as the movie comes to brand them, the Pop Trolls), who receives an invitation to join Queen Barb’s One Nation Under Rock World Tour, not realizing that it’s actually a tour of oppression dedicated to stamping out everything else. Poppy climbs into a hot-air-balloon to go meet her sister Troll queen, with the ever-forlorn Branch (Justin Timberlake) along for the ride, but not before the two learn that there are, in fact, six tribes of Trolls, all divided up by musical passion. In addition to the Pop Trolls, there are Troll lands devoted to funk, techno, classical music, country, and hard rock. Each one is built around a literal glowing “string,” which were once united (like the six strings of a guitar). But the Trolls grew hostile to each other’s tastes, resulting in a land of colonies that sound like Sirius XM channels.
In theory, all of this should be setting the table for a true jukebox jamboree, one that multiplies the pop passion of “Trolls.” In spirit, that’s just what the movie wants to be. But when it comes to playing out its musical mythology, “Trolls World Tour” is an agreeable but rather one-dimensional slow-poke road movie, in which Poppy, Branch, and their stowaway sidekick, the charmingly terrified Biggie (James Corden), along with his pet-worm-meets-sock-puppet-meets-Mr.-Bill mascot, Mr. Dinkles (Kevin Michael Richardson), pay a visit to each of these musical lands, which turn out to be visually captivating but borderline cliché places.
The land of the classical-music Trolls, known as Symphonyville, is heralded by a snatch of Mozart’s 40th Symphony and consists of big-long-haired flying angels playing penny flutes. The land of the country Trolls, known as Lonesome Flats, features Kelly Clarkson as a really big-haired C&W diva singing the lachrymose “Born to Die,” and yields one more fellow traveler for Poppy and company: a chivalrous Deep South centaur named Hickory (Sam Rockwell). It’s all a bit rote until they get to Vibe City, the land of the funk Trolls, which is where the picture should really take off. Instead, it turns into a rather dour lesson about appropriation, in which Poppy discovers that the pop music she reveres was actually lifted from other sources (in other words: pop disco started out, in the 1970s, as an indigenous form of R&B). And so, in being a party to this theft, she has actually assisted in making the world musically alienated from itself.
Fair enough, but would it be insensitive to ask: Where’s the party in that? More to the point, the film could have put across this unassailable if painfully musically correct message in a much better way — by turning the funk Trolls section into a rowdy celebration of one Troll nation under a groove. It’s fun to see George Clinton and Mary J. Blige cast as the king and queen, but “Trolls World Tour” is so well-meaning it actually gets a little guilty about the musical pulse at its core.
The movie does have its wild-card moments, like the exuberant medley of pop songs, from “Wannabe” to “Party Rock Anthem,” that Poppy and friends perform in Lonesome Flats, or the very funny idea of having Queen Barb’s bounty hunters disguised as musicians from genres like smooth jazz (which lulls everyone into such a stupor they start hallucinating) to reggaeton and K-Pop (the latter two have a dance-off). Yet the first “Trolls” had a much richer and better story. This one creates the effect of watching rudimentary puzzle pieces — and a generic we-live-in-one-world-but-we’re-all-different message — fall into place. Kendrick’s Poppy has to learn to listen more (not exactly a heroine’s mythic journey), and even when Timberlake’s testy Branch declares his love to her, the effect seems weirdly muted by the film’s not wanting to overplay its romantic angle. If you’re a fan of “Trolls,” “Trolls World Tour” will evoke what you cherished about it. But this one is too cautious to match that blissed-out sparkle.