So much of the slick, ADD-riddled studio animation that passes for family-friendly entertainment these days has been watered down by cheap jokes and bland message-mongering. You have to hand it to “Trolls World Tour” for trying to turn that standard into a half-assed Trojan horse: Yes, this candy-colored jukebox musical sequel to the 2016 installment stuffs a ridiculous playlist into silly and psychedelic gags about hairy forest critters who thrive on joy and good tunes. And yes, it will mainly appeal to kids and stoners for those reasons alone. Yet buried in all that surface inanity, “Trolls World Tour” (which was set for a wide theatrical release but will instead snake its way into American households on VOD) musters a savvy treatise on the history of modern music, and a serviceable message about the cultural differences that make its diverse traditions worthy of celebration on their own terms. It’s a stupid movie with deep ambitions, energized by that trippy neon palette, and the occasional hot beat.
For the uninitiated, troll dolls are the plastic toys that exploded in the ’60s, but the current “Trolls” universe transforms them into cheery/eerie bundles of constant joy that thrive on parties deep in an enchanted forest. The previous entry found former grump Branch (Justin Timberlake) finding his inner joy and integrating into the never-ending party of the troll kingdom overseen by Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick). They seemed destined to continue as living ecstasy pills forever after. But the troll universe turns out to be much bigger than Poppy and her gleeful servants knew, and “Trolls World Tour” expands the mythology of the original movie by revealing the same narrow confines that made the original “Trolls” soundtrack so narrow: They’re “pop” Trolls (get it?), while other regions of their land include other troll communities that adhere to very different genres: Techno, country, funk, classical, and rock. (In an amusing acknowledgement of the movie’s modern-day limitations, Poppy’s dated map also has disco on it.)
This instant world-building ensures whatever happens in the immediate future, we might be seeing “Trolls” movies for years to come, and that’s a terrifying concept even in these trying times. But “Trolls World Tour” begs you to work through the fundamental inanity of its setup by trying to do something smart with it: returning director Walt Dohrn (back from the previous entry) and a small army of screenwriters use the expansive universe to careen through a range of musical experiences while the exploring the simmering tensions between them.
That’s largely due to the efforts of crude goth chick Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), the boisterous and egocentric Queen of the Hard Trolls who looks like a Mad Max reject and wants the world to bow to her distorted riffs. As the movie begins, Barb has enacted an evil plan to steal the musical power of the other troll communities in an attempt to play “the ultimate power chord” that will allow her to overtake all the other communities.
It doesn’t take a musicologist to parse ideas here. Given the history of rock ’n’ roll and pop music often threatening to dominate the cultural landscape, the outrageous setup already has a clever enough metaphor at its center for everything else to fall into place. Poppy thinks she can befriend Barb, but Branch — harboring a crush for his Queen and unable to get the words out — isn’t so sure. As the pair journey across the Trollniverse in an effort to save their kingdom, “Trolls World Tour” hurtles through the usual pileup of snazzy remixes, some more durable than others (“Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun” is particularly grating, but an opening cover of Daft Punk’s “One More Time” suggests the techno trolls could anchor a raging party movie of their own). The movie keeps finding new ways for the trolls to learn that pop music doesn’t deserve to dominate the show — and may have even stole it. The movie gets real in a come-to-Jesus moment between Poppy and the funk trolls, overseen by a terrific George Clinton and Mary J. Blige as their appropriate king and queen, as they explain the value of fighting back against homogenization. “Denying our differences,” Clinton’s King Quincy says, “is denying the truth of who we are.” Facts!
There’s much to enjoy about the zany dance numbers and the mostly goofy plot surrounding them, but the real star remains the most distinctive visual concepts to come out of DreamWorks Animation since “Shrek”: Dominated by bright, shape-shifting imagery that mutates across multiple sceneries throughout its running time, “Trolls World Tour” is a shimmering mind trip jam-packed with too much weird visual information to fully parse in real time. The WTF factor ranges from a four-legged Kelly Clarkson bolting out somber country tunes to Guy Diamond — the scene-stealing, all-nude, auto-tuned troll of the original — inexplicably giving birth to an infant glitter troll with his hair, and a newborn Tiny Diamond who immediately talks like Kenan Thompson. There’s the set of musical bounty hunters hot on the pop trolls’ trail, including a yodeling Sam Rockwell, Jamie Dornan as a smooth-jazz Yanni knockoff, and a showdown between K-pop and Reggaeton that actually does both traditions justice, if only for a moment. At a certain point, you either give over to this loopy set of circumstances and enjoy the eclectic beats, or give up early on, but “Trolls World Tour” works overtime to win you over. We’re a long way from the sophisticated internal logic of Pixar movies, where even the most unlikely universe develops a realistic foundation for narrative conceits. “Trolls World Tour” mostly just wants to mess with your head and make you smile, pulling off the endeavor about 50 percent of the time.
Once the full scope of its drama has been unleashed, “Trolls World Tour” settles into a familiar routine as it builds to an inevitable kumbaya finish. By then, the more complex ideas on display have been smushed into blander formula. As the euphoria dies down, “Trolls World Tour” winds up less a tribute to the grand tapestry of music at its center than a queasy attempt to turn all of that into yet another market-ready product; it’s the same danger that the movie indicts early on. Still, that paradox invites a degree of scrutiny that makes this baffling franchise at least somewhat purposeful. It’s not the panacea the world needs right now, but it displays a genuine desire to figure out what that might look like. These are strange times, and “Trolls World Tour” sits right at the center of them, tossing glitter to the masses and hoping something sticks.
Universal releases “Trolls: World Tour” on VOD (and some theaters) on April 10, 2020.