I’m shocked, if not exactly appalled, that it took Hollywood more than half a century to bring the trolls phenomenon to the screen. To be sure, the little ugly dolls with crazy long hair are featured in the Toy Story films. But the poor critters, who were introduced to the American market in the early 1960s, ain’t ever had a film of their own.
In comes DreamWorks Animation and its shiny new mass market product, the computer-animated 3D family musical adventure Trolls, a $120 million tentpole extravaganza featuring a nicely varied selection of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and folk songs produced by pop god Justin Timberlake, who sings quite a few himself.
Timberlake does a rousing rendition of "Can't Stop the Feeling!" and has several memorable duets – with Anna Kendrick on "True Colors” and “September” and with Gwen Stefani on “What U Workin' With?” – while he and Stefani are joined by Ron Funches for a funny “Hair Up.”
Other vocalists include Zooey Deschanel and Ariana Grande, and there’s even a fun, slightly spooky version of Paul Simon’s "The Sounds of Silence" sung by Kendrick.
As for the story, Timberlake and Kendrick lead the cast as a pair of young trolls named Branch and Poppy who team up to save Troll Village, despite having fundamentally opposite views of the world.
Branch, who is given a wonderfully woebegone tone by Timberlake, is a prickly pessimist, a grouch who’d rather hunker down alone in his hovel than take part in Troll Village’s joy-stuffed daily routine. His lack of joy makes him an outsider, an outcast.
See, most trolls are like Poppy, psychotically happy, boundlessly optimistic airheads who spend their every waking hour hugging, singing, laughing, and tripping the light fantastic under a really big groovy disco ball.
Trolls are small, defenseless beings who live in a secret corner of the forest. But when Poppy throws a particularly loud bash, their location is discovered by the Bergens, an ugly race of monsters whose only joy in life is the taste of raw troll, sushi-style.
An evil Bergen chef (Christine Baranski) swoops up the revelers one by one into her fanny pack. Only Poppy and Branch escape. Convinced their fellow trolls will be kept alive until the Bergen royal family can prepare a public feast, they journey to the lion’s den with a daft rescue plan.
Despite the competent animation, the great tunes, and funny voice work by costars Russell Brand and John Cleese, Trolls is a lackluster entry. The story is clichéd and predictable. Overall, the film has no real magic.
It doesn’t have the silly-yet-profound soul of DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda films, the heartbreaking artistry of animated masterpieces like Spirited Away and The Illusionist, or the madcap inventiveness of Disney's Frankenweenie and Zootopia.
What rankles is the fact that DreamWorks could have made a perfectly magical fable had they simply told the story of how the troll dolls were invented.
The unisex toy, which has sold millions if not billions of units, was the brainchild of Thomas Dam, a Danish fisherman and woodcutter from a small town, who had fallen on such hard times in 1959 that he didn’t have money to buy a Christmas present for his beloved daughter Lila.
As the story goes (it’s a factual tale with a bit of myth mixed in), Dam came up with the concept of the Good Luck Troll, as he called it, using ideas from folklore and his own imagination. He hand- carved the doll from wood, hoping the ugly little creature would bring Lila joy and luck.
It sure did: Soon, other kids the fishing town of Gjøl wanted one, and orders came flooding in.
Dam eventually founded a factory and began mass-producing the troll using vinyl and eventually plastic.
I’m not sure if anyone at DreamWorks bothered to read this wonderful little origin story.
It’s a tale about real-world magic, about love and hope in the face of despair, about children’s relationships with their parents, about fishing, woodcarving.
Man, it’s all there, a treasure trove of narrative ideas worthy of a Hans Christian Andersen.
But no, we get disco tunes, disco balls, troll-eating villains, and a Mission Impossible rescue.
Shame on you, DreamWorks!
2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell. With Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, Gwen Stefani, Russell Brand, John Cleese.
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 min.
Parent's guide: PG (some mild rude humor).
Playing at: Area theaters.