On its surface, DreamWorks Animation’s latest film, Trolls, is pretty much the same as every other DreamWorks Animation movie from the last ten years: the animation is gorgeous and the story is garbage. Also, it’s not like the public was exactly hungering for a movie based on a toy that was popular thirty years ago. But DreamWorks Animation saw an IP, assumed it was valuable, and that’s how we’ve come to a Trolls movie that no one particularly wants, needs, or should care about.
But beneath the surface of Trolls is a message that’s fascinatingly sinister. It’s not the intended subtext, but when the storytelling is this sloppy and halfhearted, you sometimes end up with disturbing themes. In the case of Trolls, the message is that you should not only fear people who are different, but that those people can only be happy if they kill you and steal your happiness. The film’s solution to this conflict is not that we should accept each other’s differences, but that assimilation is the solution, and that warding off bad feelings is only a song, dance, and hug away.
Twenty years ago, the trolls lived happily in a tree, and they spent their days singing, dancing, and hugging. They took no notice of their unhappy neighbors, the Bergen, creatures who can’t sing or dance or hug, but discover that the only way they can be happy is by eating trolls. The trolls flee to a new home, the Bergen are left miserable, and the trolls go back to happily singing, dancing, and hugging until the Bergen’s exiled chef (Christine Baranski) finds their new lair and kidnaps some of the trolls. Troll princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) takes it upon herself to rescue her friends and brings along the sarcastic, survivalist Branch (Justin Timberlake) to help her navigate the wilderness. When they reach the Bergen’s kingdom, they discover that the secret to not only rescuing the trolls, but also forging a new peace may lie in bringing happiness to the Bergen Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his secret admirer, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel).
One of the biggest missteps the movie makes is that it never puts you on the trolls’ side. They seem to live a fairly hedonistic, cultish lifestyle that crushes individuality or empathy in favor of holding one never-ending rave. Poppy reaches out to Branch, but most of the other trolls ignore him and never ask him why he has such a negative outlook on life. Additionally, the trolls only help out the Bergen, not because it’s nice to help out people who are sad, but as a matter of their own survival. They’re selfish, shitty, annoying little creatures and I was kind of rooting for the Bergen, who would at least rid the world of these talking ecstasy pills.
But where Trolls really goes wrong is in how it portrays the conflict between the trolls and the Bergen in the first place. It basically sets up that the biggest problem with the Bergen is that they’re not the trolls. We’re supposed to like the trolls because they do fun things like sing, dance, and hug (and not much else, although Poppy puts together some cute scrapbooks), and the Bergen are bad not because they fail at singing, dancing, and hugging, but because they believe they can only be happy if they eat trolls.
I know trying to bring a cultural critique into a movie where a character farts glitter may be too much, but it’s the only thing that was able to hold my attention in this trash pile of a soundtrack advertisement. Caught between total boredom and morbid curiosity, I’ll take morbid curiosity. And I do find it fascinating that (spoiler alert for people who don’t want to know how Trolls ends) the solution to the problem isn’t that the Bergen realize they have a unique culture and that they don’t need to eat trolls to be happy. The film’s solution is to end in a dance number, meaning that the trolls, avatars of unconsidered happiness, teach the Bergen that the key to happiness is to be like the trolls: sing, dance, and hug.
And that’s a terrible message to have in your family film. Differences are a good thing. We should believe in different things, and while I’m not railing against singing, dancing, and hugging (these are all good things), the way they’re used in Trolls to show not ways to happiness but indeed an entire lifestyle is disconcerting. The trolls are shallow, stupid creatures and they feel threatened by people who aren’t like them. The Bergen are misguided, and while I’m glad that the movie decides the two peoples can co-exist, their co-existence is predicated on the Bergen living like the trolls.
Perhaps other viewers won’t pick up on that message. Maybe they’ll just see the stunning animation (DreamWorks Animation upped their game when it comes to showing felt and fabric) and some familiar tunes sung in a cheery voice by charming voice actors. The kids will laugh at the troll who farts glitter, they’ll want to download Timberlake’s “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!”, and they’ll dispose of this movie like they’ve disposed of DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Turbo, Home, and so forth. The best thing that could happen for Trolls would be to forget it completely. That would make me happy.