Before we take a dive into the rich text that is Trolls World Tour, a brief disclaimer: This is a movie for children. I feel the need to state this essential fact up front, since you are almost certainly reading this in quarantine (if you are not: get inside immediately), and quite possibly running out of things to watch — or desperately in need of a light-ish distraction from the Criterion Channel queue that you’ll never actually touch. Maybe you feel like tonight’s the night to shell out $20 to watch some animated fare that might carry a level of entertainment value for adults, as myriad “kids’ stuff” has done with varying levels of success over the past decade.
Trolls World Tour — out today via VOD on what was supposed to be its theatrical release date — is not that kind of movie. It’s all bright colors and car alarms, nearly every second packed with busying sound and visuals almost expressly designed to keep the pint-sized set from squirming in their seats for an hour and a half. At one point, a diamond-encrusted Troll that primarily speaks in Auto-Tune gives birth to a smaller rapping Troll immediately christened “Tiny Diamond”; at another, a dreadlocked Troll poops out an entire birthday cake, lit candles included. Enter The Spider-Verse this is not, so for the childless types, enter with caution if you decide to enter at all.
The garish, corporate immaturity of Trolls World Tour would be totally uninteresting, however, if its messaging didn’t coincide with variants of critical hand-wringing that’s taken place throughout decades of listening to and writing about music. “There’s a lot going on in the world where people are actually really trolling,” states Justin Timberlake — who returns from the first Trolls film to voice the cautious and wary Branch — in a just-released Apple Music special detailing the film’s creation. (If you think that’s an empty-sounding quote, get a load of what followed, verbatim: “And so, I don’t know, the message of inclusion through diversity.”)
But Trolls World Tour doesn’t so much offer A Balm For These Trying Times as it does clumsily tackle with two ideological notions of music criticism — specifically, “rockism” and “poptimism.” (Wait, come back!) If you’ve spent any time reading about music online in the last several years, you’ve likely seen these terms thrown around with equal parts aplomb and carelessness, but here’s a brief refresher for the blissfully unaware: the first term was coined by British singer-songwriter Pete Wylie in 1981 and has since been repurposed endlessly by decades of music writers seeking to define a sort of critical favoritism afforded to canonical classic rock acts and derivative six-stringed up-and-comers alike.
The latter signifier emerged during the early 21st century as a rejection of what rockism supposedly stood for — the notion that Jack White has more to offer in artistic value than, say, Taylor Swift — and has since been used to define the ways music criticism has changed over the last 15 years, from scope of coverage to the diversity of voices that provide said coverage. Over the past five years, both rockism and poptimism have become strawman-argument cudgels wielded equally by Lady Gaga fans seeking #JusticeForArtpop and fart-huffing NYC-media types convinced that reading Lacan is a better use of your time than watching Pixar films.
As concepts, both poptimism and rockism have been rendered more or less useless by the noxious cloud of “high-minded internet discourse,” so it only makes sense that their latest invocation is within a mega-expensive CGI film designed primarily to sell toys. The plot, briefly: Branch and Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), who hail from the “pop” Troll land, travel through various music-themed Troll worlds — country, classical, funk, you get the picture — to stop Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) from the “rock” Troll world, who seeks to collect the musical “strings” from each world to unite the Troll universe as One Land Under Rock. Various subgenres of pop music are represented throughout (even yodeling gets its own designated Troll “race”), and plenty of real-deal musicians contribute voice work, from Anderson .Paak and J Balvin to Mary J. Blige and K-pop group Red Velvet (voicing, naturally, the K-pop Trolls).
As with much popular entertainment that engages with the music world, it’s easy to pick apart Trolls World Tour for what it “gets wrong” about popular music as a whole: for one, the film opens with a Troll rave in the “techno” land where a DJ pumps Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” a glorious slice of house music that is decidedly not techno. Things get even dicier when the film — written, as these things are, by a committee of animation veterans whose credits span The Simpsons and the Kung Fu Panda franchise — engages with genre stereotypes that range from eye-rolling (Queen Barb on classical music: “Where are the words?!”) to downright inaccurate (Queen Poppy on country: “They must not know that music’s supposed to make you happy”).
But critiquing Trolls World Tour’s narcissism of small differences takes on a hall-of-mirrors effect when recognizing that the film’s messaging is explicitly against, well, the narcissism of small differences. “You may be pop, and I may be country, but Trolls are Trolls,” the country-ish Troll Hickory (Sam Rockwell) waxes philosophically before revealing that he actually belongs to the yodeling subset of Trolls — an absurd-sounding series of events, sure, but one that drives home the truism that King Quincy (George Clinton) utters in the film’s back half: “Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are.”
It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that, by the end of Trolls World Tour, every musical genre of Troll is united in individualistic pride — a post-genre resolution strongly speaking to the streaming generation’s ethos that music is music is music, and that you can chase Justin Bieber’s music with The Disintegration Loops without losing an ounce of personal integrity. But even when setting aside the overlapping spheres of corporatization in such a message (there’s nothing quite like a major studio film driving home the streaming-era music industry’s ability to give you everything all at once, guilt-free and at the artists’ expense), it’s hard to truly buy the ideological bill of goods that Trolls World Tour is selling.
Despite the breadth of genre offered throughout, the film’s central conflict is rock vs. pop — two female-identifying protagonists engaging in a battle of authenticity against frivolity, the hero on the latter end pleading for peace and simplicity while the villain strives to more or less destroy the concept of “music” as we know it. More worryingly, Queen Poppy and her pop-loving friends’ path to victory crucially relies on using gumdrops as earplugs to avoid, say, the hypnotic dreaminess of smooth jazz, or the rebellious destruction of rock music. Trolls World Tour attempts to preach embracing diversity as a tenet of coming together as a society, but the lessons it hands down are unintentionally counterintuitive to such a notion: if you can’t hear the different sounds that make up the world around you, you’re probably better off for it.
Trolls World Tour is out now on VOD.