The beaming, long-haired cherub dolls get their own animated film, and it turns out to be a madly colorful and blissed-out ride.
There are certain animated films — like, say, “Inside Out” — that achieve rarefied levels of feeling, imagination, and head-boggling audacity. In their kid-friendly way, they aim high and sail over the bar of their own ambition. But in our desire to celebrate them, let us not overlook the unadulterated magic of a Day-Glo ride for tots like “Trolls.” On the surface (and what a surface! — it just about pops your eyes open with delight), the new feature from DreamWorks Animation, distributed by 20th Century Fox, may not be the kind of blatantly brainy and profound adult-movie-in-toon-drag we’re accustomed to seeing from Pixar. Yet the enchantment that “Trolls” achieves is all too real and, in its way, quite pure. Kids should adore it, but don’t let that scare you — the movie is every 3D psychedelic inch a fairy tale for adults. It’s another antic pop-culture whirligig, with some of the fast-moving prankishness of “The Lego Movie,” but it has a touching theme that dips into a major issue — namely, what’s the nature of happiness? “Trolls” is the right film to pose that question, because it’s an ecstatically happy movie, a giddy EDM kiddie musical that sends you out on a high.
A storybook prologue done in felt colorforms tells us that Trolls are “the happiest creatures the world had ever known.” That makes sense if you think back to your own childhood connection to the iconic Troll Dolls, created in 1959 (as the Good Luck Trolls) by the Danish toymaker Thomas Dam. They had androgynous cherub baby faces with big marble eyes and grins so wide it creased their cheeks, bellies that bulged with just a bit of prominent navel, and, of course, those electroshock billows of cotton-candy hair that seemed to shoot right out of their soft plastic heads. The hair, which came in different wild colors, was their most defining feature, yet what really made the Troll Doll special is that it seemed to be beaming, with an innocent mysterioso knowingness. It’s no accident that the dolls got big in the early ’60s: Away from their outfits, they looked like naked angels reborn as baby hippies. That made them, to a kid back then, the coolest toy in the universe.
“Trolls” was produced in cooperation with the Dam Family, but the movie makes no fetish of Troll Doll nostalgia. It’s very much a present-tense Troll movie, and though it’s always light and fun, there’s nothing quaint about its motivating conflict: The Trolls live like blissed-out Hobbits in the middle of a woods, but they also live in fear of their sworn enemy — the Bergens, a tribe of giant dyspeptic ogres who are miserably unhappy but don’t want to be, and the way they’ve devised to become happy is: to eat Trolls. They do it ritualistically, once a year, on the day they call Trollstice.
The hint of cannibalism — or, at the very least, high carnivorous content — helps to give “Trolls” an edge. So do the characterizations of the Bergens, who you might be tempted to call ugly, except that these are politically delicate times, so I’ll just say that they’re cosmetically challenged, with warts and double chins and ungainly physiques and buck teeth that hang out of their mouths in hideous uneven rows, like cracked and broken Chiclets. (In this case, it seems to be the film’s observation that physiognomy is — miserable — destiny.) The most devious Bergen is Chef (voiced by Christine Baranski), who looks like the Abominable Snowman from NBC’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with an added touch of Carol Burnett. The Trolls have managed to keep themselves hidden from the Bergens for 20 years, but when they hold a raging party that throws off a great big beam of light, they give themselves away, and the Bergens go on a rampage, looking for Trolls to capture and chomp.
A word about that woodland Troll bash. It’s a genuine rave, an explosion of glitter and rainbow color and trippy beats, and it’s here that it becomes clear what an inspired decision the filmmakers made by hiring Justin Timberlake to be their executive music producer. The film’s disco pulse gives it a throb of ecstasy, and this does more than create a handful of kicky musical sequences. It lends resonance to what it really means to be a happy Troll — it lifts them out of the realm of the Smurfs or the heroes of a genial mediocrity like “Gnomes.” The Trolls may be cute-as-a-button and come in the assorted hues of a pack of designer cupcakes, but their party-animal grooviness is, in its way, infectiously adult, and that’s true from the moment the pink heroine, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), leads a running-and-jumping-and-hair-sprouting rendition of the Danish duo Junior Senior’s great 2002 track “Move Your Feet.” From that moment on, the audience has Troll Fever.
Timberlake is one of the film’s two lead actors as well, and he does a superb job of voicing the role of Branch, who’s a kind of Chicken Little/Debbie Downer among Trolls. He always thinks everything is going to turn out badly, and that attitude has made him — literally — gray, with dark hair and a slightly beetle-browed expression. But what might have been a one-joke character (the token unhappy Troll!) here becomes something more. Timberlake makes Branch an understated neurotic, who has good reason not to trust happiness (or even singing), and the film portrays his arc as a true journey. It’s an obvious variation on the one undertaken by Shrek in the first film of that franchise (also from DreamWorks), but this one carries its own wry sense of discovery, as in the terrifically funny scene where a character known as Cloud Guy — yes, he’s a walking cloud, who looks like a wad of cotton in gym socks — tries to get Branch to give him a simple high five. It’s not that intense a demand, but Branch has too much grouchy pride to do it. You want to get him some therapy.
The director, Mike Mitchell (whose credits range from “Shrek Forever” to “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” to “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo”), with Walt Dohrn as his co-director, keeps the jokes — and the backgrounds — in constant flux, so that in the course of one musical number Poppy will fall through a chain of giant spider webs, only to balloon up moments later like Violet Beauregarde transforming into a giant blueberry in “Willy Wonka.” “Trolls” is ruled by the spirit of metamorphosis, most deliciously in the glorious geek romance of Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the young ruler of the Bergens, and his scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who’s secretly in love with him. These two really are meant for each other, because they both look like the runt children of Paul Williams, but the romance doesn’t take until the Trolls give Bridget a makeover. She finds her new destiny as Lady Glitter Sparkles, even though the makeover consists of little more than weaving her a wig of synthetic rainbow hair. What a difference great tresses can make! That’s a lesson that no one understands better than Trolls.
The Trolls are happy, but the Bergens, in their depressive and unkempt brown-walled village, actually do want to be happy. What they don’t realize is that you can’t achieve happiness by stuffing your face with Trolls, or (by implication) with anything else. The feelings already have to be there — and, in fact, they are. That’s a lesson that Branch the faithless Troll needs to learn too, and when he does, to a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” the use of that song — for once! — meshes so perfectly with the movie’s form and content that as a critic, I hereby defy you not to cry. (You’ll have to wait until Nov. 4, when “Trolls” opens.) The movie’s message, and it’s a lovely one, is that we all have a wild-haired, beaming doll of happiness inside. “Trolls” will put you in touch with yours.