Thanks to the pandemic, “Trolls World Tour” is a far more significant movie than anyone could’ve imagined. In ordinary times, the fluffy sequel about musical inclusion and diversity wouldn’t have made much of a dent. But now Friday’s release from Universal and DreamWorks Animation has become a test case as the first major studio movie to bypass theatrical distribution by going straight to VOD. And, regardless of how well it does commercially, “World Tour” serves a larger cultural purpose as original entertainment for families that have been stuck at home during the pandemic.
“We were all together watching closely as things were developing,” said director Walt Dohrn (co-director of “Trolls”), “and, when it was decided we were going to go this route, it was [great] to share it with as many people as possible. In addition, it was meant to make you feel good, from the production design to the music to the themes to the jokes. We designed it to be a big, great theatrical experience, but we were very aware that people would watch it at home and on their phones. It was an honor to embrace that home environment earlier than usual.”
In approaching the sequel, though, Dohrn wanted to expand both the music and world-building. Thus, there’s a lot more at stake for singing trolls Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake) than maintaining their happy, glittery Pop village. They discover a larger musical universe (funk, country, techno, classical, and rock) that has gone its separate way and is under attack by heavy metal diva, Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom).
And they’ve assembled quite the all-star ensemble: From the land of funk are Mary J. Blige, George Clinton, and Anderson Paak. Representing country are Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, and Flula Borg. Anthony Ramos (“Hamilton”) leads the techno tribe, conductor/violinist Gustavo Dudamel and Charlyne Yi cover classical, and Kenan Thompson raps as a newborn troll.
“It’s not enough just to represent these six genres,” added Dohrn. “We worked with a musicologist to determine the genres, but we started expanding as much as we cold. Hopefully, we got a large brushstroke with as much diverse genres as we could.” And, with Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne playing the decrepit rock king, and Clinton portraying the king of funk, the director got to take advantage of being close to musical royalty. “George was a consultant and I loved the Parliament album covers,” he said. “We showed him all the development work and wanted to capture that spirit. He was definitely our guiding force.”
Yet it’s clear that the endangered rock format is the antagonist as a shout out to boomers. But Dohrn was careful not to vilify it. “We were very cautious,” he said. “We got a lot of notes from the studio, but in talking to some rock bands and reading a lot about rock people, they are very hardcore and passionate about their genre. That’s what allowed us to tell that story from the rock point of view. Wouldn’t it be a better world if the only music was the best music, which is our music? But I thought also that the music is aggressive and the characters can behave a little more aggressively.”
But, once again, the centerpiece of “World Tour” is the exceptional production design by Kendal Cronkhite, who established the handmade, fiber-based world of the first film and enlarged it in more epic fashion by pulling from distinctive materials associated with their musical worlds. For example, the world of rock looked like denim and leather, and the country landscape resembled a large, quilted blanket. In fact, DreamWorks’ big tech advancement was creating a crocheting software program.
“We had this rule in the first film not to have water, but we wanted to go underwater in this film,” said Dohrn. “And so we open with techno and toyed with water like a stage design in the style of ‘The Muppets.’ And we found an artist who did micro coral reef. It still was all fiber based. The river looked like ripped organza. We thought: Let’s go further. The organic materials transport the audience into a different space.”
In addition to “The Muppets,” the director threw in lots of visual references from other favorite films, including “Fantasia,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “The Wall.” “Maybe it’ll be like some of those midnight movies that I grew up with,” Dohrn said. “Maybe it’ll find its way into a theatrical experience when this is all over.”