Lindsey Bahr of the associated press said of Dreamworks’ Trolls, “the get happy message, while trite when compared to something like Inside Out, is sufficiently sweet for its audience. Did you expect more from a piece of candy?”
Yes. Yes I did. And so should you.
From the previews, Dreamwork’s Trolls appeared to be the latest in a long line of derivative children’s movies full of saturated colors and high-energy hi-jinks, but failing to convey even a hint of substance. The marketing for this film has presented an easy-to-digest, broadly appealing, inoffensive family film with a few veiled shout-outs to the drug culture the film cribs its psychedelic aesthetic from. That’s not entirely inaccurate, but I’m happy to say there’s much more to Trolls than I ever expected, given that it’s a film based on a toy-line from the 80’s.
On the surface, Trolls is a quirky little trip populated with colorful characters, a feel-good message about tolerance and musical numbers rivaling the best of Disney’s latest offerings (although Dreamworks cheated by using pre-existing songs, rather than wholly original compositions). The humor is more sparse than the ads may have implied. The majority of the comedy comes in the form of visual gags, which hit more often than they miss. The script itself is fairly straight-forward and serious, with most of its humor stemming from the characters as opposed to random hi-jinks or pop culture references. Dreamworks seems intent on letting us know they haven’t lost their edge, however. The film’s tone is surprisingly dark, and nearly as much screen-time is dedicated to the terminally unpleasant Bergens as to the irrepressibly happy Trolls. The film has more than its fair share of innuendos and drug-references. But more on that later.
In the past few years it seemed as though Dreamworks had given up its game of playing the sarcastic older brother to Disney. Over the years their efforts have become less subversive and more comfortable for family audiences. Trolls is a return to form for the studio, proving that they can play the musical game as well as Disney, without losing their signature style.
But there’s more to Trolls than the apparent sum of its parts. Beneath the surface are two distinct and powerful allegories; one for the Bergens, one for the trolls. Things you may not have noticed, but your brain did.
First, let’s take a look at the Bergen. In this story-line, the Bergen represent unhappy people, and the Trolls represent recreational drugs. The Bergen are a race of hideous creatures who live in a terrible depressing society and have real trouble being happy. In fact, the Bergen believe the only way to be happy is to eat a troll. Once a year on Trollstice, the Bergen go to the Troll tree trapped in the center of their village to eat a troll and be happy for one day. Until all the trolls run away. After the trolls escape, the Bergen Chef (Christine Baranski) is banished from town, and the young Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is told he will never ever ever be happy. Chef (yes, her character is listed in the credits as “Chef”) spends the next twenty years hunting Trolls in the forest, until she finally finds and captures around twelve of them. After bringing the Trolls to Prince Gristle (now an adult and a king) she is immediately back in the kingdom’s good graces.
Here’s where the drug metaphors start to kick in.
King Gristle is concerned that there aren’t enough Trolls for everyone to eat on the newly announced Trollstice. Chef combats this by offering one of the Trolls for him to eat in advance (since she is confident there is enough). When he refuses she eventually all but forces him to do so. The reason is simple: once he’s hooked on Trolls, he’ll stop caring about his kingdom and only want to eat more Trolls. To put it bluntly, Chef is a dealer. A very manipulative dealer.
Meanwhile a Bergen scullery maid named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) is secretly in love with the king, but lacks the confidence to attempt overcoming her station. When she finds the trolls, her first instinct is to hand them over to Chef, but they end up helping her come out of her shell. The trolls help her disguise herself and impress the king by serving as a long rainbow wig. The king does not recognize her, but is entranced (it’s basically Cinderella). However, after her date with the king, Bridget is unable to let go of the trolls. “I need you” she says, bargaining with the trolls to help her go on. In this case, the trolls represent the seemingly positive effect drugs can have in helping anxious people get through social situations, and how this can reinforce the addiction process. Bridget is dependent on the trolls for her happiness, just like every other Bergen.
At the end of the film, the Bergen discover that they can be happy without eating Trolls (taking drugs) and that “happiness isn’t something you put inside you” but is something you make. Seems pretty direct to me. I found it downright genius to make a film clearly inspired by and catered to drug culture have a strong anti-addiction message. It’s hard for me to say “anti-drug” because there are sequences in this film obviously designed to be watched while on psychedelic drugs. The Trolls are fun, but they won’t make you permanently happy, and they aren’t the only thing that will make you happy. I imagine the film-makers probably feel the same way about (certain) drugs.
On the Trolls side of the story, the metaphors are perhaps more apparent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the plight of the trolls has parallels to any number of oppressed groups now and throughout history. Twenty years after escaping the Bergen, the Trolls have returned to their endlessly partying ways and have grown complacent. All except for the dour and frowny-faced Branch (Justin Timberlake). He warns Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) to not throw a wild party while the Bergen are still out there. After twenty years of peace, she decides to ignore him. And of course, a large number of Trolls get captured by Chef. Poppy decides to go to Bergen Town to rescue them, but all of the other Trolls are too shocked and afraid to go along. Branch shows up to save her at the last minute and the pair make their way to Bergen Town.
Poppy and Branch appear to be the classic trope of extremely different character types+long journey=comedy. But there’s more going on here. We learn that Branch likes singing and dancing as much as every other Troll, but isn’t letting himself be happy until the Trolls are liberated from the Bergens once and for all. He has seen first-hand what happens to Trolls who let themselves to seen and heard, since his grandmother was eaten when he was a child. Poppy on the other hand, has never experienced oppression first-hand. Her entire life has been as a princess of the Trolls, partying and laughing. Poppy finally discovers what its like to be sad and discouraged at the end of the film, and that the threat of oppression must be taken seriously. Branch learns that in order to fight your oppressor, you must accept yourself and not be afraid to be bold.
While the metaphors can certainly apply to any marginalized group throughout history, there are significant hints that the film is specifically addressing the LGBTQ community. For the purposes of brevity, I’ll be using the umbrella term “queer person”. Poppy represents a young queer person who has always been accepted and never faced the persecution of the past. Branch represents a queer person from a more conservative background who was forced to hide certain parts of himself and is aware that the persecution is not just in the past. Branch refusing to sing or be happy for fear of being noticed is a metaphor for coming out of the closet. Doing so has historically made queer people a target, but for the many in younger generations, it seems like no big deal at all. At the key dramatic point of the film, the Trolls regain color and happiness by singing True Colors, a song that has long been associated with the LGBTQ community. There are numerous other hints and nods throughout the film, such as the macho macho man appearance of the young King Peppy, and the song “I’m coming out” playing when Bridget dawns the rainbow wig.
So we see Trolls is a fun family musical with more than a little thrown in for an alternative audience. The counter-cultural leanings and unapologetic weirdness provide a strong counter-balance to the earnestness of Disney and blandness of Illumination. This movie could be a sign that Dreamworks is finally getting its groove back. But it’s also a layered allegory for drug addiction and the complacency of marginalized groups under the Obama administration. How’s that for a “piece of candy”?