“Trolls,” the first musical comedy from DreamWorks Animation, reintroduces a ’70s New Age idealism to counter today’s snarky skepticism. That meant imbuing Thomas Dam’s iconic fuzzy dolls with a happiness mantra and creating a colorful, hand-crafted world of fiber and fabrics for them to thrive in (courtesy of production designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin).
Director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn (“Shrek Forever After”) call it “fuzzy immersion”: “Our Trolls are like gummy bears that have been flocked in velvet and it’s a world made of fiber art … carpeted floors, houses made of hair, even fire is made of hair,” Mitchell explained to IndieWire. “And it’s all about the hair as their superpower.”
For that, the DreamWorks hair department made the new Willow program for better hair manipulation. “They could stretch their hair, they could grow their hair, they could change colors, they use it like a whip,” Mitchell said.
For inspiration, they turned to Dr. Seuss, Jim Henson, Hayao Miyazaki, Peter Max and Cartoon Network’s trippy “Adventure Time” series.
In their perpetual state of happiness, the Trolls (led by Anna Kendrick’s Princess Poppy) sing and dance and hug and scrap book.. However, the glum Branch (Justin Timberlake) lives in perpetual fear of the Bergens: the unhappy tribe of giants that eats Trolls for pleasure. For 20 years, they’ve managed to hide from the Bergens until Poppy’s festive celebration signals where they are.
“‘Trolls’ was a blank slate — there was no world, no mythology,” Dohrn said. “We talked a lot about the Grinch and we liked how they showed his heart growing, but how do you show a photographable device like that for The Bergens? We ended up using color for a lot of that: desaturating and then pulling the saturation up.”
The directors also immersed themselves in the nature of happiness. “I looked at TED talks, a Harvard study, a lot of Eastern, Buddhist philosophy,” Mitchell said. “Where does happiness come from? What happens when you lose it? How do you get it back? We really got into it and discovered that we’re all born with this innate happiness inside us and we’re in charge.”
“For the Bergens, it’s an external thing,” Dohrn said. “The backstory for them is that they’re a tribe traveling in a land of perpetual unhappy that finds these happy creatures; they eat them and it feels great.”
The music then became a shortcut for expressing happiness or sadness. Mitchell calls “Trolls” a jukebox musical, highlighted by Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”
But when they couldn’t find an appropriate song for the finale, Timberlake came to the rescue and concocted an original that became an instant hit, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
“We want people to learn the power of optimism, especially kids,” Dohrn said. “And it’s hard to tap into happiness, especially if you’re facing any conflict or struggle, which we are today.”