Friday, November 4, 2016

Trolls: Hair today, gone tomorrow

Trolls (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, and needlessly

By Derrick Bang

Occasional successes such as The Lego Movie notwithstanding, Hollywood’s track record with respect to designing films from toys has been spotty, at best.

After several of their friends are kidnapped by the evil, Troll-chomping Bergen chef, the
eternally cheerful Poppy, left, tries to persuade the eternally gloomy Branch to join her
on a rescue mission.
Anybody out there remember GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords? Or Bratz: The Movie? Kit Kittredge: An American Girl? Clue? Battleship? Jem and the Holograms? Or — God help us all — The Garbage Pail Kids?

Contrary to what is assumed by far too many of today’s Tinseltown deal makers, good movies rarely spring from 15-word concept pitches, regardless of the source material. At the beginning, middle and end of the day, it always comes down to story, story, story.

Which is the ingredient most sorely lacking in DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls.

To be sure, the film’s “fuzzy immersion” look is fabulous, with everything given a luxurious, yarn-like quality. The color palette is equally pleasing: bright pastel hues that favor rich blues, greens, pinks and purples. No question: It’s a razzle-dazzle delight, populated by adorable animated characters that are certain to please very young viewers.

Anybody over the age of 6 or 7 ... not so much.

Adults ... not at all.

The derivative, threadbare script aside — Erica Rivinoja, Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel couldn’t have spent much time on it — this film’s insufferable, gooey-sweet tone is guaranteed to send diabetics into sugar shock. It’s syrupy overkill on par with the slushy, mushy movies based on the Care Bears, Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony.

Ya gotta worry about a movie that promises to help viewers Find Their Happy Place.

So. This vividly multihued realm is inhabited by fuzzy, barefooted Trolls of various shades (and a few unusual sizes). All possess the ability to expand and manipulate their hair, with the skill of Spider-Man and his web-shooters. By and large, though, the forever cheerful Trolls are much too busy with “hug attacks” every 30 minutes, and their tendency to burst into song at random moments.

Alas, the Trolls share this kingdom with the much larger, uglier and nastier Bergens: dour, pessimistic creatures who look much more like the actual trolls of ancient myth, than the little Trolls themselves. The Bergens yearn to be happy, and learned long ago that the only way to achieve such bliss ... was by devouring Trolls. Baked, fried, sautéed, fricasseed or simply popped into the mouth and chomped, like a gumball.

Even if the Troll is still alive and protesting.

(Like, seriously? That’s a rather grim concept for such a family-friendly endeavor.)

The Bergens even established a holiday — Trolls-tice — to celebrate this annual infusion of good cheer.

Ah, but — as established during a prologue — the Trolls’ stalwart King Peppy (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) long ago rescued his people from the vile Bergens, and led them to a safer place deep in the forest, where a new Troll Village was established. Flash-forward to the present, where Peppy’s overly peppy daughter Poppy (Anna Kendrick) has become the village’s primary dispenser of hugs, songs and parties: the noisier and more flamboyant, the better.

This is of major concern to the village’s sole spoilsport: the overly cautious, curmudgeonly Branch (Justin Timberlake), who neither hugs nor sings. He also worries that making too much noise might attract the Bergens. Those beasts have long mourned the loss of their annual dose of gladness, which the Bergens’ King Gristle Sr. (John Cleese) has blamed on their chef (Christine Baranski).

Chef was banished, but hopes to reclaim her former glory by finding — and capturing — the Trolls. And, wouldn’t you know it, Poppy’s most recent fantabulous blow-out produces just that result. One ferocious invasion later, Chef has made off with Poppy’s best friends: the massive Biggie (James Corden) and his pet, Mr. Dinkles; Smidge (Walt Dohrn); DJ Suki (Gwen Stefani); “fashion twins” Satin and Chenille (Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, better known as the Swedish duo Icona Pop); Guy Diamond (Kunal Nayyar), the resident glitter Troll; the giraffe-like Cooper (Ron Funches); and the Zen-like Creek (Russell Brand).

Chef’s triumphant return to Bergenland is hailed by the new king, Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who — believing that he’ll finally be able to experience happiness — can’t wait to swallow his first Troll. Ah, but Gristle Jr. fails to recognize the potential for exhilaration right at his feet (literally): Bergen scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who has long pined for the young king, who never spares her a second glance.

Poppy, determined to rescue her friends, sets off on a solo mission — singing all the way — that proves unexpectedly hazardous. (For such a cheerful, candy-coated realm, the forest sure is filled with all manner of weird critters with big teeth.) Despite his initial refusal, Branch naturally pops up at an opportune moment, and ... well, the rest has few surprises, particularly when Rivinoja, Berger and Aibel swipe a subplot from Cinderella.

In fairness, the thin script manages some nice messages about inclusiveness, optimism and the wisdom of favoring a smile over a sneer. A few of the running gags are cute, notably Poppy’s tendency to scrapbook her experiences, even before they occur. Directors Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell even manage some mild pathos, during the climax, when Poppy — believing that she has doomed all the Trolls — loses her joyful pink hue and turns a mournful grey. It’s an unexpectedly powerful moment.

For the most part, though, it’s impossible to get emotionally involved, because of the frequently intrusive, wall-to-wall singing. (More than two dozen songs do their best to obscure the film’s failure to give most of its characters anything approaching actual personalities.) Modern hits and tunes dating back to the 1960s are covered or “modified” with film-specific lyrics: everything from “The Sound of Silence” and “I Feel Love” to “True Colors,” “September” and — of course — “Celebration,” along with a few originals by Timberlake and various collaborators.

Granted, it’s all in good fun, and the family-friendly content never comes close to being offensive. (The PG rating is a mystery; I’ve not seen a softer G for decades.) And, yes; it seems churlish to grouse about an endeavor that’s so clearly intended to charm.

The voice talent certainly puts heart and soul into their respective efforts; Kendrick is appropriately perky, and Deschanel’s lovelorn Bridget is a hoot. Timberlake brings a bit of gravitas to Branch, the one character who achieves an actual emotional arc. And there’s no question that Mintz-Plasse’s voice was destined to be attached to a whiny animated character.

All that said, Trolls remains insubstantial. It simply lacks the repeat-viewing appeal that turned DreamWorks’ Shrek into such a successful franchise.

Definitely not an animation hair apparent.

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