The Trolls movies continue to indulge in their best and worst impulses in a third installment.
The poster for this past summer’s R-rated comedy No Hard Feelings had a reasonably clever tagline to explain the strained dynamic between the film’s two leads. Against an image of Jennifer Lawrence squeezing Andrew Barth Feldman’s cheeks, a single word is placed on top of each person’s face: “Pretty” and “Awkward.” Nothing revolutionary in design, but it gets the job done. Best of all, that tagline also makes for an apt descriptor for Trolls Band Together.
The third entry in the Trolls trilogy (based on the popular 80s dolls), Trolls Band Together does indeed live up to the phrase “Pretty. Awkward.” The animators at DreamWorks keep coming up with gorgeous-looking environments for the titular critters to inhabit that look like they emerged from the wreckage of a craft store explosion. Unfortunately, the writing remains as stilted as ever.
Elizabeth Tippett’s screenplay for Trolls Band Together begins with a new piece in the inexplicably tormented backstory of franchise lead Branch (Justin Timberlake). Rampant memes on the internet have made it quite well-known that “singing killed [his] grandma,” but now viewers learn that Branch was once in the boy band BroZone with his four brothers. However, the group eventually disbanded, and Branch never saw his siblings again…until now.
Once the story shifts to the modern world, Branch’s oldest brother John Dory (Eric Andre) suddenly swoops in and crashes a wedding that our hero and his girlfriend Poppy (Anna Kendrick) are attending. There’s a reason for this bold interruption though: Floyd (Troye Sivan), another one of the BroZone members, has been kidnapped by a pair of evil pop stars, Velvet (Amy Schumer) and Veneer (Andrew Rannells). The only thing that can free him? A BroZone reunion where all the members sing “the perfect harmony.” Poppy and a reluctant Branch proceed to join John Dory on a quest to get this family back together, an endeavor that will take more than just some vocal lessons to fully realize.
Now that we have three Trolls movies out in the world, it’s utterly baffling how the franchise has only half-heartedly embraced the concept of lavish musical numbers. Characters are always singing in Trolls Band Together, but rarely for long. In this particular adventure, heroes and villains alike sing snippets of “9 to 5,” “Lonely People,” “Island in the Sun,” and other tunes for only 30 seconds at a time. Even a longer opening ditty chronicling preparations for a big wedding entitled “Let’s Get Married” is just comprised of brief covers of various Lizzo and Sister Sledge songs.
Refusing to let the musical segments breathe gives the impression that Trolls Band Together is ashamed of being a musical, a strange quality considering so much of it has big theater kid energy. You can be a lot of things when you’ve got that aura, but being deficient in confidence isn’t one of them. Other jukebox musicals make a whole spectacle out of performances of tunes like “Fernando” and “Lay All Your Love on Me,” complete with fireworks and backup singers dancing in scuba gear. By contrast, Trolls Band Together, like its predecessors, executes its musical numbers in an obligatory fashion that speaks to the rudimentary writing on display.
Another strange element in the screenplay is the dissonance between its wackiest impulses and also its obvious desire to be “heartwarming.” Individual scenes try to channel the psychedelic imagery and vibes of classic animated films like Yellow Submarine. However, those movies were willing to just throw narrative conventions to the wind to accentuate their surrealistic qualities. Trolls Band Together, meanwhile, keeps pausing its plot to have characters talk in didactic terms about toxic sibling dynamics or Branch’s internal woes. It’s like director Walt Dohrn wants this to be the cinematic equivalent of a drug-laden party interrupted by a seminar on how to deal with complicated familial relationships. Needless to say, nobody involved in this project can pull that strange mixture off.
It’s a shame the story of Trolls Band Together lacks the confidence to commit to either absurdist comedy or musical spectacle since the visuals on display are often quite pretty. It’s especially fun to see new species in the Trolls universe that have decidedly distinctive looks rooted in pop culture of yore. Residents of a beach resort island, for instance, all look like Muppets (complete with the lower halves of their bodies often being kept off-screen) while Velvet and Veneer have the rubbery limbs of Olive Oyl and countless other vintage cartoon humans. There’s a level of dedication and variety in the images of that, unfortunately, put the rest of the movie to shame.
All those gorgeous visuals are put into the service of the worst DreamWorks Animation features, like tepid pop culture references and stilted celebrity voice-over performances. The animation dives head-first into the idea of an unpredictable world brought to life through glitter and scrapbook gear. Unfortunately, Dohrn and Tippett’s half-hearted creative vision for that same movie is a comedy musical that can neither stray too far from generic sentimentality nor have musical numbers stay on-screen for over 30 seconds. No wonder Trolls Band Together registers as “Pretty. Awkward.” more than anything else.
Trolls Band Together premieres in theaters November 17th.