'Trolls' (Official trailer)
Before the internet spoiled it, the word “troll” used to mean something quite different in American pop culture: dolls.
They looked like TV’s Olsen twins, shrunken and then electrocuted to produce freaky hairdos. But the toys were considered cute enough to remain popular across multiple decades.
Now, 57 years after their introduction by a Danish toymaker, they’ve earned a feature film. Although the animated “Trolls” leaves no lasting impression, it proves momentarily engaging for youngsters seeking a cheery time-waster.
In this tale, once upon a time, the tiny trolls were the food source of the Bergens, a race of ogres deemed the “most miserable creatures in the land.”
The trolls eventually mounted a daring escape into a woodland hideaway, where they perfected the arts of dancing, singing and hugging. They even wear watches that chime every hour to remind them to hug.
While Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) goes out of her way to embrace their cloyingly positive outlook, dour curmudgeon Branch (Justin Timberlake) fears the worst. He holes up in a “Bergen-proof survival bunker,” convinced the giant carnivores will find his clan, thanks in part to the trolls’ constant, noisy revelry.
When his fears are realized, pink Poppy and blue Branch team up to rescue their captured friends from the evil Bergens. But what if the Bergens aren’t entirely evil and only need the trolls’ positivity to change their manner?
Sound annoying? It actually isn’t.
“Trolls” contains just enough wit and weirdness (a gonzo interloper named Cloud Guy, voiced by co-director Walt Dohrn, proves spinoff-worthy) to stay watchable for its brief running time.
Reinforced by slick 3-D, “Trolls” creates a psychedelic rainbow realm that complements the characters’ exaggerated natures. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a glitter bomb, right down to a troll who literally squirts glitter like a defense mechanism.
The trolls seem to be made of the puffy foam of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Rather than relying on hair color — a la the toys — to differentiate these characters, the filmmakers (led by directors Dohrn and Mike Mitchell) fight hard to inject personality into the peppy heroes.
The troll vibe is contrasted with the grim, colorless Bergen Town and its toothy, warty inhabitants. But the Bergens are also given expanded characterization, which includes a Cinderella-style subplot about a scullery maid (Zooey Deschanel) who pines for a dejected king (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Less effective is the music. “Trolls” can sort of be labeled a musical. But in reality, it’s more of an adventure overloaded with familiar songs (and few originals). And such bizarre choices.
Why are these forest dwellers dancing to a cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”? What do Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” have to do with Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”? So many tunes, so little continuity. Even the inferior “Gnomeo & Juliet” benefited from a through line of Elton John hits.
But a version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” works because the Teutonic synth beat-meets-soul melody is so unexpected for a chase sequence. It’s not the same old “Born to Be Wild.”
“Trolls” is just wild enough to be respectable. It doesn’t come close to the bar set by “The Lego Movie,” which truly showed how to adapt a bauble from childhood. But it’s a few hairs better than either “Smurfs” picture.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG. Time: 1:32.
3-D or not 3-D?
Nearly every scene takes advantage of 3-D technology, creating a more immersive, inviting world.