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Non-Review Review: Trolls World Tour

If nothing else, Trolls World Tour demonstrates how far animated American films have come in the past few decades.

Modern family audiences have come to expect – and not unreasonably – a certain amount of polish and sophistication in terms of the stories being told. It’s common to credit Pixar with this evolution of expectation, given the narrative and thematic sophistication of films like Toy Story or Finding Nemo. However, the truth is that this was a movement across the medium, with Dreamworks also making significant contributions with films like Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon and even Kung-Fu Panda.

Keep Trollin’, Trollin’, Trollin’, ya!

Children have always been more sophisticated media consumers than people credit them, and it’s notable that younger children increasingly process information and storytelling in more concentrated bursts; platforms like Vine and Tik Tok spoke more to younger audiences than older ones, often hypercompressing narratives with an impressive efficiency. As an audience, kids are both smart and shrewd, and often capable of handling whatever film or television can throw at them. It seems like only recent have film and television begun to catch up to them.

This is part of what makes Trolls World Tour so disheartening, particularly in the context of this revolution in family films. Trolls World Tour believes that all it needs to do to distract children is to confront them with bold colours and familiar music. Maybe that’s correct, and it seems likely that Trolls World Tour will be suitably soothing to younger viewers. However, there’s something slightly cynical and patronising in the movie’s commitment to the philosophy of “just enough.”

Ballooning problems.

Trolls World Tour does have a loose plot and some broad themes. However, there’s never a sense that either of these were subject to the same rigourous engineering that is applied to the best modern family entertainment. Trolls World Tour often feels like an assemblage of things that are just happening, largely designed in order to facilitate a few jokes or a catchy musical numbers. Characters wander into and out of various plot lines with no sense of purpose, with characters like Cooper literally meandering through scenes until the climax needs to draw the cast together.

Trolls World Tour seeks to distract its target audience, rather than engage with them. As one might expect given the film’s status as a lucrative toy tie-in, it is very much built around texture and colour. The inhabitants of Trolls World Tour are all suitable adorable and suitably varied in colour, to better distract the younger audience members just looking for a little variety. The computer-generated animation plays into the toyetic aspect of all this by building a world that looks like a child’s bedroom, all soft fabrics and knitted surfaces.

Flutin’ about.

Of course, Trolls World Tour is about selling more than just toys. It is also an effort to package the old fashioned sound track album, and manages to seem just a little less cynical than Ugly Dolls in the process. There’s been much written about how hard it is for studios to sell soundtracks these days, but aiming a collection of recognisable (and catchy) pop and rock songs at a young audience seems like a shrewd way to get around that problem; Trolls World Tour often feels like nothing but a collection of familiar poppy medleys.

The movie’s first big musical set piece is built to Daft Punk’s One More Time, and it speaks very much to the functional nature of the film around it. There’s a pervading sense of “sure, why not?” to the entire film, which makes it appropriate that Trolls World Tour should be one of the first major films to be released direct to streaming, even as Universal pushes back Minions: The Rise of Gru. Trolls World Tour is something that exists. It might make some money, it might sell some toys, it might boost some self-isolated streaming playlists. It might not. What’s the harm?

Rock on!

To be entirely fair, Trolls World Tour is at least aware of how times have changed, and how modern cinematic entertainment has to at least gesture towards big themes and ideas. This patina of meaning affords even most cynical of films something resembling credibility – this movie has “something to say”, and therefore is more than just a gigantic toy commercial or soundtrack promo. Trolls World Tour aims for the broadest and least offensive of themes, the classic “why can’t we all just get along?”

There’s a reason that this theme has become a standard for mid-shelf family films, underscoring movies like Cars 2 or The LEGO Batman Movie or The Angry Birds Movie. It’s the kind of unobjectionable feel-good moral that parents understandably want to instill in their children, packaging a tolerance for difference with a call for peaceful coexistence. It is nowhere near as sophisticated as the messaging of more top-shelf family films like The LEGO Movie or The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part. It’s simple, easy to parse, and completely non-threatening.

Barbed commentary.

Appropriately enough, Trolls World Tour builds this metaphor around a musical theme. “What’s more important than living in harmony?” asks Princess Poppy early in the film, and the film includes a laboured allegory about a magical musical instrument with a variety of strings. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Trolls World Tour is the way in which it builds this debate around the real-world arguments about mass music, pitching its central battle between the “rockism” of the Rock Trolls and the “poptimism” of the Pop Trolls.

There are moments when it seems like Trolls World Tour might possibly have interesting things to say about the kind of culture that we value and the kind of culture that we don’t. “That’s not real music,” protests Queen Barb of the Rock Trolls when confronted with electronic music, and she makes similar complaints about classical music (“where are the words?”) and the “ear worms” of pop music. Anybody who has had that conversation with a particular brand of rock music enthusiast will agree entirely.

Working in harmony.

However, this is all undercut by a facile “bothsidesism” and a shallow “we’re all equally to blame” approach to the argument that works hard to obscure any potentially uncomfortable dynamics that underpin this debate. Casting Queen Barb as the leader of the Rock Trolls quickly erases any potential gendering of the argument about what “real music” looks like. Similarly, there’s no real acknowledgement of the marginalisation of funk music. The film even makes jokes at the expense of disco, a genre that was most profoundly affected by this gatekeeping in real life.

Trolls World Tour goes out of its way to insist that Bobby and her friends need to learn to be inclusive and welcoming to country music, which handily ignores the ways in which country music has itself been hostile in its response to genre-bending like Old Town Road. Even within the world of the film, Queen Barb does truly horrific things to the communities that she visits, tearing them asunder and grinding them under her heel. Trolls World Tour brushes all of that aside at the climax, insisting that even Barb deserves to have her voice heard.

It’s a different country.

There is a sense in which Trolls World Tour is well intentioned. “Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we really are,” explains King Quincy, offering a slightly more nuanced perspective on inclusion and reconciliation than films like this typically afford. However, there’s also a refusal to acknowledge that maybe mutual respect is essential to dialogue. “You have to be willing to listen to different voices, even when you don’t agree with them,” the film insists, which comes perilously close to the rhetoric of “let the racists speak!” that has caused so much trouble.

Again, there’s no real sense of active malice here. Instead, there’s a sense of “that’ll do” and “just enough.” It’s clear that Trolls World Tour isn’t actively arguing for including racist and sexist views in conversation, it is just indifferent to the implications of its core ideas. It likes the soundbytes that come with a story about broad inclusion, and doesn’t have any interest in actually thinking through their implications in any serious way.

If the film doesn’t consider itself worthy of such basic interrogation, why should the audience?

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