'Trolls' is better when it's weirder
It can be difficult to be around lots of happy people when you're feeling gray. That's the conundrum of Branch (Justin Timberlake), a misanthropic and maudlin troll who just doesn't fit in with his dancing, singing brethren in the animated feature "Trolls." It's easy to see where he's coming from. His foil, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), bursts with a weaponized sense of joy, forcing her subjects into an oppressive regime of colorful, glittery glee, replete with complex choreography to Top 40 hits. Her cover medley of "Move Your Feet" and "D.A.N.C.E." is a veritable assault on the senses.
Joy is a complicated part of the trolls' history, as they've been hunted and consumed for years by the miserable bergens, a grumpy species who believe that the only way to achieve happiness is through eating trolls. The last bergen feast was 20 years ago, when King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) saved the trolls and took them into hiding. They remain hidden until Poppy decides to throw the biggest, baddest, loudest rave in celebration of their independence, drawing out the bergens.
Got all that mythology? The thing about films centered around retro children's toys is that there's no backstory _ it's a blank slate for the filmmakers to go wild. The diminutive, wild-haired troll dolls become highly excitable party monsters with a penchant for pop music, running around a world crafted out of felt and fabric, trying to escape the monsters hoping for a fix of fun.
When Branch and Poppy team up to save some of their troll friends plucked out of the rave by the evil bergen Chef (Christine Baranski), they have to meet in the middle. Poppy has to learn that despite her sunny outlook, it's not always rainbows and sunshine. Branch has to learn that it's OK to feel happy, sing, and express emotion despite the risk of danger. Once these two get on the same level, the joy outbursts become far more tolerable and a lot less grating.
The second half of the film largely features two of the best voice performances in "Trolls": Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the portly bergen boy king Gristle, and Zooey Deschanel as lovelorn bergen scullery maid Bridget. Both are yearning for happiness, buying the lie that the only way to achieve that is through troll consumption. Deschanel's performance of ugly duckling Bridget is filled with a sense of whimsical melodrama and true pathos. She gives Poppy a real mission and a challenge _ how does one cheer up a lovesick, downtrodden scullery maid? It does prove true that trolls are the key to happiness, but only because they show those bergens how to boogie down and have a good time. Hint: It revolves around Timberlake's undeniable summer jam, "Can't Stop the Feeling." Go ahead, just try not dancing to it.
There's something about the neon-tinted, sugar-smacked highs of "Trolls" that can be bizarrely infectious. When it's weirder, it's better, and there are elements of the animation design seemingly inspired by old 1970s cartoons and children's shows like "H.R. Pufnstuf." When the soundtrack sticks to popular tunes rather than original musical numbers, Timberlake and Kendrick give inspired vocal performances, particularly on "True Colors." When "Trolls" finds its balance, universal, if simple truths abound, preaching the gospel of finding contentment in oneself, not through a quick fix.
2.5 out of 4 stars
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gwen Stefani, James Corden
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes