There is no reason that Trolls should work as well as it does. George Lucas tried a similarly fantasy-tinged jukebox musical almost two years ago with Strange Magic, and it was among the worst movies of 2015. Yes, Trolls is syrupy sweet, and I should be stumbling directly from the theater to a dentist's office to check for new cavities. But rather than turning out insufferable, it manages to become adorable.
So how do you get an adorable children's story out of a bunch of intentionally ugly naked dolls with multi-colored hair and no discernible story? First off, the folks at DreamWorks softened the features somewhat, while turning the hair into an appendage of its own. For the story, they slapped on what seems at first to be a simple good-and-evil fairy tale, with the happy, brightly colored Trolls hiding from the drab, grey Bergens, whose only happiness comes from eating Trolls.
But when you dig into it, there's a really neat trick that Kung Fu Panda screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger pull off here. The Trolls are happy and colorful figures that kids will no doubt be attracted to, and they love nothing more than dancing and hugging without a trace of irony. But the Bergens are, for lack of a better word, trolls. There's no dancing or hugging or joy in Bergen Town, and the closest they come to happiness is in tearing down and destroying someone else's happiness. Some of them like the Chef (Christine Baranski) are really dedicated to this happiness-through-unkindness project, and even work to indoctrinate younger Bergens -- the young Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) in particular -- into the same worldview.
Which sort of sets would-be critics on their heels; it's easy to snark at a fluffy, candy-colored fantasy until someone asks you what's actually wrong with a fluffy, candy-colored fantasy. Is the instinct to roll your eyes at Trolls just an attempt to tear down someone else's joy for the fun of it, or to somehow prove your own cool? Are you criticizing actual faults, or just being a Bergen?
Of course there may actually be an argument against the happy party atmosphere, and that comes courtesy of the Troll survivalist, Branch (Justin Timberlake). He warns that the world is not always safe and happy, and ignoring that fact could have unfortunate consequences. The big party the Trolls are planning could well attract the attention of the Bergens, which of course it does. A half-dozen Trolls get snatched up, and the eternally optimistic Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) enlists Branch's help in going to rescue them.
Kendrick and Timberlake's presence goes a long way towards making Trolls work. Putting two well-established pop singers in the leading roles seems like a no-brainer, but again look back at Strange Magic to see that not everyone finds it obvious. It also helps that the music is generally current pop, in dancey styles that kids today are likely to be fans of, rather than shoving '50s and '60s ballads at them.
Yes, it's cutesy, but at least it's more charmingly than cloyingly so. There's not a lot in here for the adults accompanying kids to the theater, but it's generally pleasant and inoffensive enough to enjoy at a mere ninety-minute stretch. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with just being cute and happy for a little while.
Rating: 3 out of 5