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Why Does ‘Trolls World Tour’ Relitigate Rock-Critic Debates?

A movie only a bored child could love, the ‘Trolls’ sequel has things to say about pop music and a whole lot more

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Trolls World Tour is actually about rockism. I can’t believe it. Did you hear about this? Did you stumble across the bemused tweets and aghast early-review headlines, à la “Trolls World Tour Is a Poptimist Nightmare,” and not believe it? Yeah, me neither.

And yet! “It’s time for the Hard Rock Revolution to start!” crows Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), the villainous Rock Troll. “Pop tried to destroy our music!” laments Queen Essence (Mary J. Blige), she of the Funk Trolls, immediately after Prince D the Extra-Funky Troll (Anderson .Paak) raps at length about cultural appropriation. When our hero Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) leads the Pop Trolls in a medley that includes “Wannabe,” “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “Gangnam Style,” “Party Rock Anthem,” and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” (?!), the Mainstream Country Troll (Kelly Clarkson) gets so pissed that she throws them all in jail. But fear not: The Alt-Country Troll (Sam Rockwell) busts them out. Climactic lines: “You’ve destroyed music! Thanks to the Queen of Pop, we’ve all lost our music! History repeats itself: Pop has ruined everything!”

Already, I feel like you don’t believe me.

Universal Pictures

That’s King Quincy (George Clinton) on the right. What is going on? What is this movie? What month of quarantine is this? Directed by Walt Dohrn (who also reprises his role voicing the ultra-chill Cloud Guy; my kids love Cloud Guy), Trolls World Tour is the extra-baffling sequel to 2016’s plenty-baffling Trolls, a neon-and-glitter colossus best known for costarring Justin Timberlake (as the Gloomy Pop Troll) and unleashing his neo-disco hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” upon the world. (In this new movie, Timberlake gets to make a joke about disco being dead, which feels like a troll-as-a-verb of some sort.)

I dislike the soundtrack to the first Trolls movie immensely. My kids got obsessed with it, see, and thus I’ve heard “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” 10,000 times, along with the song in which Zooey Deschanel raps, and also the end-credits jam when Kendrick (Anna, not Lamar) and Timberlake cover Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” an extra-trolly-in-both-senses glitter-overload remake that I dislike extra-immensely. Regardless, I paid $20 to bring the sequel into our home as a 48-hour rental: That’s what month of quarantine it is.

For indeed, Trolls World Tour, released Friday, was conceived pre-coronavirus as a theater blockbuster, and thus is the first true mid-coronavirus test of whether people—harried parents, specifically—will fork over the equivalent of basically three months of Disney+ just to watch a single new movie in the quote-unquote comfort of their own homes. (Universal boasted on Monday that the movie scored the biggest digital debut ever, FWIW.) Good question! I’ll jump on that one just as soon as someone explains to me how the ultra-wonky Rockism vs. Popism debate, which very crudely boils down to Is Neil Young’s music inherently more genuine and valuable than Beyoncé’s—and which roiled turn-of-the-century message boards, hit The New York Times in 2004, and has fueled many fine think pieces in the 1.5 decades since—is now the basis for a 2020 kids movie in which various adorable cartoon characters poop glitter and/or birthday cakes while singing the likes of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

The first Trolls movie, directed by Mike Mitchell and based on a beloved series of Danish toys with brushable hair, pitted the happy-go-lucky Trolls (led by Queen Poppy) against the miserable and dastardly Bergens, an orc-like race that once a year (on “Trollstice”) ceremonially eats Trolls to steal their happiness. Macabre high jinks ensue, a gamut of popular songs (from “The Sound of Silence” to Junior Senior’s ask-a-rock-critic jam “Move Your Feet”) are sung, Zooey Deschanel (playing a Bergen maid) raps, the Bergens discover true happiness lies within, and “September” is desecrated to the point that I wish the Trolls involved had actually been eaten. It made nearly $350 million worldwide; stay out of it.

In Trolls World Tour, the Bergens are discarded, and Queen Poppy and her fellow Pop Trolls discover that they are not alone in the universe, genre-wise. “You see, we love music with a hummable hook, with an upbeat melody, with a catchy rhythm that makes you want to snap your fingers, tap your toes, and wiggle your butt.” This is King Peppy, Poppy’s father, talking; he is also played by Dohrn, in a role voiced, in the 2016 original, by Jeffrey Tambor. “But these other Trolls, they sing different. They dance different. Why, some of them can’t even begin to grasp the concept of Hammer Time.”

Cue just a smidgen of “U Can’t Touch This.” Kids-movie-veteran parents are used to this shit, or at least we thought we were. But now there are Techno Trolls. Country Trolls. Classical Trolls. Funk Trolls (basically all black music mushed together). Reggaeton Trolls. K-pop Trolls. Yodeling Trolls. All of whom are existentially threatened by Queen Barb and the Rock Trolls, who fire up “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “Crazy Train” and a few other tunes you can guess on the first try. (Right: “Barracuda,” too.) The Rock Trolls vow to lay waste to the other kingdoms and collect the Six Strings and something something Thanos something Ultimate Power Chord something world domination. “Pop music isn’t even real music!” Queen Barb complains, super-problematically. “It’s bland! It’s repetitive! The lyrics are empty! Worst of all, it crawls into your head like an earworm!” Watch out for the Beyhive, Barb.

I can’t overemphasize how confusing and psychedelic this viewing experience is as a chastened rock critic, or for that matter as a regular human. “Where’s he going?” my wife blurted out at one point, only partly paying attention as Cooper the hip Pop Troll (Ron Funches) crawled through the desert seeking others of his kind. “Funk Land,” I responded, accurately. “Why are her eyes red?” my wife blurted out a half-hour or so later, paying less attention. “Because she’s a Rock Zombie,” I responded, even more accurately.

Suffice it to say that in a striking echo of Frozen 2, our peppy singing heroes find out that they—meaning pop stars, meaning mostly white people—are the Real Problem, the capitalist oppressors, the brazen culture-jackers. Every original song in Trolls World Tour is trash save for “It’s All Love,” which costars Clinton, Blige, and Timberlake, and allows .Paak to break down in startling detail how pop music ripped off black music:

Shoulda seen between all of the scheming
It seems like the Trolls they stole from were meaningless
Walkin’ around like they were the geniuses
But it’s only samples, Auto-Tune, and remixes

There’s an ad-lib about not even getting publishing rights! I can’t tell you what percentage of this surrealistic Ted Talk my own kids absorbed: “I actually like this music,” the 6-year-old exclaimed during a brief snippet of the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey,” which so frightens one Troll that it poops out a whole birthday cake, and frankly the 6-year-old and his 9-year-old brother liked that way more. My assumption was that when the Pop Trolls and Country Trolls finally reconciled, they would combine to sing a Florida Georgia Line song, whereupon someone else would throw them all back in jail. But that, as it turns out, was thinking way too hard about a kids’ movie that is already thinking plenty hard itself. “Scrapbooks are cut out, glued, and glittered by the winners,” Prince D the Extra-Funky Troll fumes at one point, and unless you’ve got kids to mollify and $20 to burn, just take my word for it that it sounded profound at the time.