It's somewhat fitting that the new DreamWorks Animation feature "Trolls " came out right after Halloween. The movie is a sugary sweet confection of sights and sounds that will surely leave a fair share of adults with an aching stomach and bleeding ears from sensory overload. But, it's not for them, is it? Sure, it's their childhood toys that are being riffed on, but beyond the dazzlingly grotesque renderings of the 1970s rec room look – all carpets and felt and mustard yellows – "Trolls" is not a nostalgia play.
It's for the kids, and fairly young ones too, who will no doubt be swept up by the neon, the sterilized cover songs of pop music past and present, and the goofy, big-hearted humor. Even the parents will find loads of charm from that last one. The script is quite clever, but it is too easily overshadowed by everything else that's going on (which is a lot).
The governing theory behind "Trolls" seems to have been to crank it up to eleven at every turn. That fits with the mantra of the Trolls themselves, which is hyper-positivity (and I do mean hyper). They sing and dance and hug every hour and celebrate with joyous abandon. There's even a Troll in full body sparkles who sings only in auto-tune – an example of how the jokes can go way too far into just plain annoying territory.
Thankfully, it's grounded with some truly fantastic vocal talent led by Anna Kendrick (Princess Poppy), whose impeccable comedic timing and silky speaking and singing are perfectly used. I just wish they would have stuck with more original songs, saving the known pop tunes for comedic effect only. Sonically speaking, "Trolls" is hitting a little too close to that abysmal George Lucas mess "Strange Magic."
The story itself is an odd one. The Trolls have some distant neighbors called Bergens – grotesque-looking monsters suffering from chronic depression who decided long ago that the only way to be happy is to eat Trolls. Yes, EAT the Trolls, like their own personal supply of Prozac. For some reason, they only do this once a year on Trollstice. But that all ended 20-some years ago when the Troll King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) heroically staged a massive escape mission, saving his subjects from death by Bergen.
Cut to the present day and the Trolls are happy and celebratory as ever, but their party gets a little too rowdy and, well, an exiled Bergen (Christine Baranski) spots them and captures a few to weasel her way back into the good graces of the people of Bergen Town. The dreary ugliness of Bergen Town and its inhabitants actually has a bit of a Jim Henson-vibe, reminding older audiences of a time when children's productions were still allowed to be insanely weird and even a little creepy. But it stops at the visuals. Even the awkward Bergen scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) has a perfectly crisp pop voice when she bursts into Lionel Richie's "Hello." Why didn't she go full character actress in song? It's just another one of the ways in which "Trolls" mashes up past and present in a way that doesn't quite coalesce.
In any event, Poppy and the rare negative troll Branch (Justin Timberlake) take it on themselves to go try to save the captured Trolls. They have a fun enough buddy comedy chemistry together, though Timberlake is not as adept at voice acting as Kendrick is. And ultimately, the "get happy" moral of the story, while trite compared to something like "Inside Out," is sufficiently sweet enough for its audience. Did you expect more from a piece of candy?