It’s easy to dismiss Trolls as less of a movie and more of a giant marketing machine built to sell toys to kids and music to everybody, especially after Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” dominated radio stations over the summer. So it’s surprising – and welcome – that Trolls manages to not only clear the low expectations aimed at it, but also has a worthwhile message in it to boot.
The Trolls are a group of happy, energetic beings who become the main food for creatures called Bergens, a miserable group of beings that believe they only can experience happiness when they eat a Troll on a special holiday. One year, though, King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) leads the Trolls to a distant pasture, with the Bergens falling into despair. Twenty years later, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) leads a charmed life with frequent musical numbers and hugs. When her exuberance leads the Bergens to the Trolls, though, she’ll have to enlist the help of Branch (Justin Timberlake), the only grumpy Troll, to help save her friends.
Trolls may have a standard plot – my mind went to both The Smurfs and Strange Magic more than once – but it thankfully also has a smart script, given life by two incredibly smart picks for leads. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake are both gifted vocalists with effervescent charisma to spare, and they’re given fun banter to establish their relationship as opposites. There are plenty of snarky and quippy asides, both between Poppy and Branch and from outside characters.
The music, too, is smartly chosen. There are plenty of covers included in the film, along with several originals beyond “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” Fortunately, thanks to Timberlake’s role as musical director, the covers manage to work in the context of the film. Some of them are thrown into medleys together that work surprisingly well. Whoever thought to mix Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” with The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” is a genius. There are even moments of heartbreak, courtesy of both Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” the latter of which introduces the narrative twist: the Trolls encounter Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), a kitchen maid who wants Bergen King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The Trolls want to help Bridget get what she wants, but how can they help when the Bergens as a whole want to eat the Trolls?
This is where the lesson comes in, and thanks to a lot of goodwill the film has built up by this point, it works. The Trolls are able to suggest that happiness is more than consumption. It’s something that comes from within. Considering Trolls comes from a toy line that’s already setting up shop for more toy sales, the idea that consumption doesn’t lead to happiness is a surprisingly strong one. It may seem corny, too, but with a movie this charming and engaging, it’s a message kids will be more likely to take to heart. Along with some of those songs, because they are pretty darn catchy.