I’m “biast” (con): wasn’t the biggest fan of the first movie
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
And so now we come to what might be the Rubicon of cinema in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a moment that may determine what the experience of watching movies looks like for the foreseeable future, even after our Big Pause ends. Will “going to the movies” still be a thing?
Because, look: We’ve had some small films and indie releases that had been intended for arthouse screens go directly to streaming in the wake of the shutdown of cinemas (and nearly everything else). We’ve had a few big studio movies whose theatrical runs were cut short rushed onto premium VOD. These actions rocked the industry but weren’t necessarily damaging in the long term to the current paradigm. They weren’t too radically different from what we’ve known before.
This could be, though. This is a huge milestone. Big-budget studio movie Trolls: World Tour — sequel to animated adventure comedy Trolls, which was a nominal hit in 2016 — was intended to be a spring tentpole, a movie with kiddie appeal taking advantage of the Easter school break on both sides of the Atlantic to draw families into the multiplexes. Instead, it was released directly onto streaming services as a premium rental yesterday in the UK, at £16 for 48 hours of unlimited viewing, with the same rental at $20 starting on Friday in North America.
Pricewise, depending on the cost of cineplex prices where you are and how big your family is, that’s potentially a good to excellent deal. (But please don’t invite people from outside your household to watch while we’re all in lockdown!) If you’ve got a decent-sized television with good sound and reliable broadband, it’s not an unpleasant viewing experience… and it is how most people usually see a movie nowadays anyway, if typically a few months after its theatrical run, and without spending anywhere near as much for the pleasure. The DVD of the film, which you will eventually be able to purchase and keep forever, will be cheaper than this two-day viewing window. How many people are willing to pay a steep premium just to be among the first to see a movie? On a big screen, sure, plenty of folks. At home? That remains to be seen. And if it’s not many and our cultural shutdown continues for months or even into next year, will some new big films just go directly to DVD and regular, cheaper streaming? Will the big-screen experience be reserved for only the most dazzling spectacles of all?
With all of this at stake, does it even matter if Trolls: World Tour is any good? Bad reviews might doom the movie’s chances, but will good reviews convince audiences to spend this much on a movie?
As it happens, I liked World Tour more than I liked its predecessor… even given the fact that I had to pay £16 for it. (I requested a screening link for review from the studio publicist, and was turned down. I probably would have been invited to a press screening of this movie in normal times, but if I hadn’t been, I would not have had to pay this much for a ticket to see it on a big screen.) I found Trolls aggressively cute and obnoxiously cheery as it strained to craft some sort of backstory for its subjects, which were plucked from a toy shelf with the sparsest of contexts beyond that; experiencing it was more about giving in to its sparkle and glitter rather than actively embracing it.
World Tour explodes with equally outrageous levels of pastel gaudiness and abundant glitter; cupcake poop makes a return appearance, too, in case you were wondering. But its silliness feels more glorious now, and way less forced — or maybe it’s just more welcome in these strange, dark days — and there’s a serious message underlying it. For here we learn, along with Queen Poppy (the voice of Anna Kendrick: A Simple Favor, Pitch Perfect 3), about how there are many different kinds of Trolls across the world, who dwell in many different realms suffused with many different kinds of music. If we thought, as clearly Poppy did, that reveling in bouncy pop music was somehow an inherent quality of Troll-ness, well, now we know that there are Trolls who are into rock, and others into funk and soul; there are classical Trolls and country-music trolls and techno trolls.
The plot revolves around rock-chick Barb (the voice of Rachel Bloom: The Angry Birds Movie 2) wanting to crush all other music and unite all the Trolls under rock ’n’ roll, and Poppy trying stop her; Poppy simultaneously gets lessons about leadership and friendship with the help of her pal Branch (the voice of Justin Timberlake: Runner Runner, Inside Llewyn Davis). Along the way, there are many delightful tunes, slipping and sliding in and out of different genres — you might want to hop up and dance around, and you can do that in your living room! There are many ticklish cameos: George Clinton and Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes, Rock of Ages) as the king and queen of the funk realm! Sam Rockwell (Richard Jewell, Poltergeist) as a cowboy-crooner Troll! The animation is a confident mashup of styles and flavors: the land of country music has rolling hills of gingham and quilts; the techno realm is like attending a Troll rave. There are gentle but pointed lessons about how much more fun and interesting the world is when all different kinds of music (read also: all different kinds of people and cultures) can coexist and share their joys with one another… but also — rather shockingly, and pulled off supremely well — a motif about how cultural appropriation, on the other hand, is very deeply uncool and unfair.
This is a genuinely sweet, smart family film, much more sincere than I was expecting, much more easily enjoyable than the first movie. It doesn’t deserve to have the weight of carrying the future of movies on its little Troll shoulders. But perhaps it is somehow fitting that the fate of the cinema realm is as threatened as the Troll realms are here… and perhaps we can take the movie’s pleasant positivity that everything will turn out fine in the end.
• Trolls movie review: you can’t stop the cute