Against my better judgment, I enjoyed 2016s Trolls. Of all the toy-brand-adaptations studios pumped out in the mad scramble to re-bottle The Lego Movie’s lightning, Trolls was by far the most demented. A pastiche of DreamWorks’ better films: Trolls took the themes of Shrek, basic worldbuilding of How to Train Your Dragon and character dynamics of Over the Hedge, put them in a blender with few karaoke pop songs and called it a day. The film has hollow messaging about “the beauty within”, which is fitting because it is aesthetically hideous. Characters fart glitter and poop cupcakes. I don’t know what the visual equivalent of a cavity is but Trolls will give you several. And yet… I cannot deny how infectious it is. When Susan Sontag wrote Notes on “Camp”, she might as well have been writing about Trolls. It is so tacky, so ghastly, that it takes on ironic pleasure, attaining the hallowed classification of “so bad it’s good”. When watched with a large group while under the influence of your preferred substance, Trolls is euphoric.
The original Trolls was an all-out assault on the senses but it was fun. Trolls World Tour is just an assault. In the first five minutes alone one troll seemingly orgasms to techno music and another troll gives birth to a baby troll (voiced by SNL’s Kenan Thompson, of all people) by shooting them out from their hair-loaf. You may ask why we need to know how trolls give birth? Or why shooting them out of their hair was what the film’s creators settled on? You may wonder how trolls get pregnant? Does the music orgasm factor in somehow? And if trolls orgasm to music, and they’re singing all the time, does that mean they’re also orgasming all the time? I have no answers for you. Neither does the film. None of this is ever addressed because it is not relevant to the broader story in any way. It just happens.
And that’s (part of) the issue with Trolls World Tour. Things happen, for no reason, all the time. Director Walt Dohrn and his writing team seem to be aware that the joy of the original Trolls was its sheer lunacy and knowingly doubled down on it. In Notes on “Camp”, Sontag distinguishes naïve camp and deliberate camp, stipulating that only the former is true camp because it is effortless, the latter is self-aware and thus trying too hard. If Trolls was naïve camp then Trolls World Tour is a deliberate camp. It takes great effort to recreate the originals manic energy, but in trying, loses it. When we’re introduced to Jazz Trolls and K-Pop Trolls it’s with a wink and nudge. The irony isn’t fun if everyone’s in on the joke.
To make matters worse Trolls World Tour assumes anyone cared about the world-building of the original. Out of the gate, we’re informed that Queen Poppy’s (a barely-there Anna Kendrick) troll tribe is actually one of six, each of which is devoted to a different kind of music. Poppy’s is pop (naturally) and the other five are Funk, Classical, Techo, Country, and Rock. Then we’re told that once the tribes were a united nation but at some point in the past they split, and when they split they each took a chord from a magical lyre which is now the source of their respective sounds and if the lyre is put back together then the combination of different musical genres it will give the wielder unimaginable power to… and you’ve stopped paying attention, haven’t you?
Trolls World Tour‘s world-building is akin to the Star Wars prequels: horribly boring, totally nonsensical, and all the film wants to focus on. The last thing the Trolls franchise needed was complex lore. Who’s going to care? Not the child with a half-developed hippocampus, and certainly not their parents. They have to worry about other things like whether said child going to demand as much repeat play of Trolls World Tour as they do Frozen.
What plot there is kicks into gear when Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom, great fun) of the Rock Trolls decides to go on a world tour to take back all the chords. In Poppy and Barb Trolls World Tour has the makings of an interesting tension, one that draws from the rockism/poptimism paradigm. At first, that does seem to be where the film is headed, using the moodiness of rock to challenge Poppy’s optimistic outlook on the world, building toward a kid-friendly message about how accepting differences can make us stronger. Then, in a move that can only be described as totally confounding, the film layers a critique of colonialism over this debate. I am not kidding.
The use of colonialism invites the kind of scrutiny that Trolls World Tour simply cannot withstand. The choice brings forward the historical roots of the rockism/poptimism debate, how rockists co-opted the genre from black communities who used it to make anti-colonialism art to dismiss the disco, the new popular black music, as inauthentic. Every aspect of the film is drawn into question because of this move. A prime example is the optics of Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake (great voice, terrible voice acting), two white actors, playing the poptimist leads. The best course of action would be to not overthink the political implications, this is Trolls after all, it’s just stunt casting. But by introducing colonial themes it becomes practically impossible not to overthink these things.
This choice is made all the stranger by the fact that the film never displays any interest in actually addressing colonialism properly. Instead, it wants to wear colonialist imagery without dealing with the deeper meaning. This makes Trolls World Tour (a children’s film!) guilty of the exact colonial practices that it seemingly wants to work against. The most maddening part is that the decision to incorporate colonialism into the themes of Trolls World Tour reeks of the kind of naïve camp that made the original fun!
I am sure the small children for whom this film is designed will have an enjoyable time, the music is perfectly fine and there is no shortage of toilet jokes (every second character is introduced post-poop, whether they are cupcake poops remains unknown). But for adult audiences, be they hapless parents or a group of friends looking for something ironically funny to watch, Trolls World Tour is nothing short of a nightmare.