Is there a more unlikely film franchise than Trolls?
Troll dolls were a major fad in the 1960s before fading into relative obscurity, occasional comeback aside. But that didn’t stop DreamWorks from seeing a future for the little guys, and acquiring the brand in 2013. The first Trolls was a cheery, candy-colored jukebox musical that proved a surprising success, earning well over $300 million worldwide and a Billboard chart-topping hit in “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which also nabbed an Oscar nomination. And the second film, 2020’s Trolls World Tour, has the distinction of being the first major studio film to be released directly to home-viewing platforms during the pandemic—a historic precedent that helped change the film industry.
Trolls World Tour clearly did well enough without a proper theatrical release, because the trolls are back, baby! Trolls Band Together marks the third outing for the cute critters with the spiky hairdos and karaoke addiction.
This time, the focus is not on Poppy (Anna Kendrick), queen of the Pop Trolls and plucky heroine of the earlier movies, but on her boyfriend, Branch (Justin Timberlake). Turns out Branch was once part of a boy band with his brothers called BroZone, but an attempt to achieve the perfect harmony tore them apart. Now, many years later, Branch’s brother, John Dory (Eric André), has some news: Their other brother, Floyd (Troye Sivan), is in danger. He’s been kidnapped by the latest musical sensations, Velvet (Amy Schumer) and Veneer (Andrew Rannells), who keep him imprisoned so they can harvest his musical talents—they have none of their own, you see. The only way to free Floyd is to reunite all of Branch’s brothers (yes, he has more) and finally achieve that impossible dream of a perfect harmony.
If you’ve seen the trailer for Trolls Band Together, you know the film’s main selling point is that it reunites NSYNC, Timberlake’s ’90s boy band, and features their first song together in 20 years. That’s an odd hook for a movie franchise ostensibly aimed at audiences too young to know NSYNC. (Sorry fellow millennials, but it’s true!) Odder still is that Timberlake’s actual NSYNC bandmates have an incredibly brief cameo and barely factor into the film at all.
The whole movie seems made with Timberlake’s persona in mind—again, maybe a strange choice, since this is something that a lot of children probably don’t care about. Boy band references are constant: “Branch, we’re out of sync. We’ve gone from boys to men and now there’s only one direction for us to go to the back streets,” Floyd tells him. It’s a line that encapsulates a lot of the problems in Trolls Band Together. The joke is too wince-inducing to amuse adults and too dated to speak to the kids this film is supposed to enamor.
There are two things that draw people to the Trolls movies: the vibrant animation and the music. To its credit, Trolls Band Together is absolutely gorgeous, and the animators find all sorts of ways to make CGI animation feel fresh and interesting. The palette is so rich, it’s as if every shade ever conceived was thrown into a blender and aimed at the screen. There’s even a psychedelic hand-drawn sequence that’s stylistically innovative and a reminder that there is some real talent toiling away behind the scenes at DreamWorks Animation.
Musically, however, this is the least interesting movie in the franchise. Its big original song, the much-hyped NSYNC number “Better Place,” is a dispiriting collection of clichés that sound AI-generated. The vocal talent is there (unsurprisingly, given that half the world’s musicians are in this thing) and some of the song choices—like Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”—are inspired. But there’s an emptiness to the film’s generic adventure and how the music is incorporated into it. It feels like every song was chosen by a Magic 8 ball rather than thoughtfully curated.
Trolls Band Together can’t quite figure out whether it’s for kids or adults, and as a result feels like it’s for neither. It commits the cardinal sin of not trusting its audience. Every time there’s a moment that could constitute actual character development, it’s interrupted by a corny one-liner. As a cheery multiplex experience, it feels particularly meager compared to the Trolls movies that came before it—yes, even the one that skipped multiplexes.
DreamWorks Animation has been undergoing a sort of resurgence lately, developing a refreshing new style in movies like The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. But between this new Trolls outing and the recent Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, their 2023 output has felt like a step backwards. Trolls Band Together looks and sounds fantastic, but its storytelling is stale and risk-averse. It’s the least adventurous film of the franchise, and it seems terrified of ruffling feathers. Why sample Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” and then refuse to actually say “hell?” The Trolls franchise, much DreamWorks, seems to be going in reverse.