Movies

The Unexpected Poignancy of Trolls World Tour

The just-released sequel is the poptimist children’s movie I didn’t know I needed.

Neon turquoise and pink Trolls in a Trolls-ified version of the OK Corral.
DreamWorks

Can you spoil Trolls World Tour? If so, this article does.

In ordinary times, last weekend would have been the time I dragged myself to a matinee of Trolls World Tour with an eager 10-year-old in tow, perhaps with a couple of like-aged children whose parents I owed a favor along for the ride. Instead we watched it at home, the first new Hollywood movie I or anyone else has seen in a month. The sequel to a genial but unremarkable 2016 hit, the new Trolls was not a movie that was expected to make history, or to do anything more than funnel a few hundred million dollars into DreamWorks’ coffers. But because the world now is not what it was three weeks ago, Trolls World Tour will always have a place in the annals of movie history—as the first major studio film of the coronavirus era to be released straight to video on demand, and now as the apparent “biggest digital debut ever”—although whether it’s as a footnote or a chapter heading remains to be seen.

It’s strangely fitting, then, that Trolls World Tour is a movie about history, or at least the distorted versions of it on which societies are built. We pick up more or less where the first movie left off, with newly installed Queen Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) ruling over the happy-go-lucky inhabits of Troll Village. As before, they keep their spirits high by singing egregiously Auto-Tuned medleys of wedding reception standards—here, a mashup of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Good Times,” and “Groove Is in the Heart”—as they skip around trees and caress each other with their prehensile hairdos. But there is no joy in Trollville, at least once it becomes clear that the kingdom’s well-being is under threat from the menacing Rock Trolls, who want to replace their hummable hits with eardrum-splitting power chords. As far as we knew before, there was only one kind of Troll, and thus no need to specify. But a quick consultation with Poppy’s father, the former king, reveals that there are six separate Troll kingdoms, each unified by their devotion to a single musical genre, including classical, country, techno, and funk. The creatures formerly known simply as Trolls now realize that they are Pop Trolls, the guardians of a form they never knew needed protecting.

The assault on pop by rock is a familiar subject in 21st century music criticism, where the insurgent movement once known as poptimism has become so dominant that it, like the Pop Trolls, no longer needs a name. No serious music critic—or at least no music critic who hopes to be taken seriously—would argue that a singer’s work is less important because they don’t write their own songs or because their backing tracks are cooked up on laptops rather than played on “real” instruments. Barb (Rachel Bloom), who enters the movie belting Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” voices the familiar complaints about pop music: It’s repetitive, lyrically lightweight, and just too much fun. But we’ve spent a full movie—and, if you are unlucky enough for your children to have found them, a holiday special and a Netflix series—in the world of the Pop Trolls already, and besides, they gave us “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” We’re not going to turn on them now.

Given the intended audience for the Trolls franchise, stacking the deck in pop’s favor is a safe play. (If I ever attempt to change the station to anything other than Top 40, my 10-year-old wants to know only “Is this pop?”) But World Tour has something a little more complicated up its sleeve. A few genres get short shrift as Poppy travels through kingdoms attempting to slow Barb’s conquest; the lone representative of classical music is a droopy pennywhistle too winded to so much as carry a tune. But the kingdoms of country and funk are vibrant places, full of music as vital as the Pop Trolls’ own. (If you’re wondering where hip-hop is, it’s relegated to a corner of the funk kingdom, thanks to a map so old that, as one Troll observes, it still has disco on it.) And in the land of funk, Poppy learns that rock is not the first genre to make a bid for total dominance. The first to try it, and the reason the kingdoms were sundered in the first place, was pop.

Poppy spends a little more time processing the revelation that her ancestors were straight-up imperialists than Frozen 2’s Anna and Elsa, but she internalizes the same lesson. The only way to protect her people is to abandon her kingdom—or at least the idea of it. Restoring the status quo ante, in which each tribe keeps to itself and the genres stay pure, is no longer an option. Poppy’s initial reaction to the news that there was a time when music was just music, undivided by the knowledge of genre, is to conclude that the kingdoms are all the same, which is Troll for “I don’t see color.” But the king of funk, voiced by George Clinton and named for Quincy Jones, steps in to correct her: “Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are.” The enemy isn’t rockism, nor is it pop supremacy. It’s monoculture. Poppy has said all along that her mission is to restore harmony. But in music, it’s not harmony when everyone sings the same notes.

It’s also not harmony when you’re alone. The climax of Trolls World Tour is set at a rock show, where Barb plans to use her magical guitar to turn the rest of the Trolls into “rock zombies.” But instead, the concert becomes a celebration of music in all its forms, its power to bring a room full of strangers together and, for just a few minutes at a time, make them feel something. And reader, I wept. Not for Poppy, or the Trolls, but because there is no together right now. Trolls World Tour was made to play in theaters that can’t open, celebrating a kind of performance that’s on indefinite hold. All I could feel watching its climax was how much I miss that feeling of being together in the dark, and how long it’ll be before it feels safe to do it again.