Several generations ago, six tribes of Trolls–each representing a different type of music–all lived in perfect harmony with each other, but following a rift between them, they went their separate ways, each taking a magical musical string with them in order to protect their culture. Now Queen Barb, leader of the Rock Trolls, is invading her neighboring kingdoms on a quest to make hard rock the only kind of music left in the world. Blissfully oblivious to this, the recently crowned Queen Poppy takes Barb’s declaration of war as an invitation to become friends, and with the reluctant help of her best buddy (and potential boyfriend?) Branch, she’s determined to unite the Trolls tribes…before it’s too late for all of them.

Back in 2016, DreamWorks Animation released Trolls, a movie which almost no one expected to be good which ended up being an extremely pleasant surprise. Opening towards the end of what had been a particularly divisive election year, Trolls served as a bowl of sprinkle-frosted musical niceness with just enough of an edge to keep it from being overly sweet. Almost everyone in the story–even the creatures who wanted to devour its hairy heroes–was ultimately sympathetic, resulting in an almost defiantly non-cynical outing which worked as a plea for empathy at a time when audiences needed just that. Suffice it to say, I liked Trolls (something regular readers of this website might recall I’ve mentioned multiple times here), and a whole lot of other people did as well, perhaps making the announcement of a sequel inevitable.

Of course, when Trolls World Tour was first put into production, no one was probably counting on all movie theaters (well, with the exception of a couple of drive-ins) being closed at the time of its intended release date. Though unlike other studios, which have chosen to delay the theatrical runs of their would-be blockbusters, Universal decided to skip that route entirely, choosing to release the follow-up straight-to-streaming as a digital rental. This was an unprecedented move, one which wasn’t met without controversy, but it is what it is, which makes Trolls World Tour something of a surreal experience as it stands.

For me at least, it felt weird watching an expensive animated movie which was meant to be viewed on the big screen on my laptop, without the company of fellow audience members, which is part of the communal ritual of the cinema. Is this merely an experiment or the new normal? Time will tell with that one, but so far, the only other tentpoles to find themselves officially taken off the theatrical calendar are Disney’s big budget fantasy caper Artemis Fowl (which will now premiere as a Disney+ exclusive) and the animated SCOOB!, which is following in Trolls’s tiny footsteps and will be an On Demand release as well.

Having said that, if there’s a case to be made for a new movie being made available now during a time of global crisis, it’s something like Trolls World Tour, which works as the sort of candy-colored escapism that may be exactly what the doctor ordered right now to momentarily pull people out of quarantine-induced doldrums. As a sequel it’s pleasant and brisk–maybe a little too brisk as, at 90 minutes including a 10 minute-long credit crawl, it feels a tad on the short side–functioning as completely harmless entertainment, albeit on a non-demanding level.

Does it reach the same unexpectedly poignant notes of the original? Probably not. In fact, if anything, the main shortcoming of World Tour is that it ultimately can’t quite measure up to most of the first film’s charms, even if it manages to come close to them. There’s still all of the Twizzlers-friendly pleasure that you loved (or maybe didn’t) about the previous adventure, but it’s missing some of its nutritional value, providing a suitable sugar rush without necessarily being especially filling.

Granted, I used an extremely similar allegory in my review of Trolls from when it was brand new, but it was probably meatier than I gave it credit for at the time, with helpful messages not only about the importance of everyone having the right to experience joy, but also that we are often very happy even when we perceive ourselves of leading dreary lives. World Tour starts fast and very rarely slows down, but the stakes feel slightly less high this time around, not just because no one is at risk of becoming a meal here, but because supposed villain Queen Barb, with her 80’s haircut and electric guitar, is so gosh darn likable that she’s rarely able to be particularly threatening.

I will stress that I am not saying this as a complaint, as Barb–voiced with delightful punk enthusiasm by Rachel Bloom–is easily one of the film’s highlights (her barely mobile father is also voiced by Ozzy Osbourne, which is either a nice touch or something that wasn’t needed depending on who you ask). If the secret weapon of Trolls was its own self-awareness over it potentially being very annoying to certain viewers, than the ace up World Tour’s sleeve is sheer appeal. There are no boo-hiss bad guys, no characters deserving of horrible fates, and even when a betrayal takes place, it’s less played for gasps and more for giggles for its absurdity when it does happen.

And just like last time, a large part of this is due to its heroine. Once again, Anna Kendrick plays Poppy perfectly, her voice full of such genuine affection and empathy towards those around her that she reacts to negativity with confusion or even disdain. Working as a contrast to this is Branch, who may be a bit less of a grouch than he used to be, but remains amusingly irritable. I will admit that I’m not sure how I feel about the “romance” that develops between the two–I rather liked that they were allowed to develop a meaningful relationship without becoming lovers–but it’s a plot element the film never finds a way to deliver on, making it almost come across as an afterthought. Familiar faces from the first Trolls also tag along for the ride, but this is mainly the Poppy and Branch show, with only a street-smart Country Troll voiced by Sam Rockwell playing a major role.

Of course, the most successful aspect of Trolls might’ve been its soundtrack, so it should come as no surprise that World Tour features plenty of songs, with modern variants on everything from Who Let the Dogs Out? to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. There are, however, fewer lavish musical numbers to be found here, but that’s not to say there aren’t some original tunes, including a hilariously bleak country ballad sung by Kelly Clarkson. What’s missing is an iconic “Can’t Stop the Feeling” or “Get Back Up Again” to help truly elevate the music (not to mention the album sales) up a few notches, but what we do get, for the most part, is still fun.

So it is a bit odd when things momentarily take a “jaded” turn towards pop music just before the third act, which feels out-of-nowhere coming from a franchise which has been nothing but a celebration of the genre. Revealing much more might classify as a spoiler, but suffice it to say it doesn’t ever have much of a payoff (or even a resolution), making the inclusion of such attitudes (however briefly) even more perplexing.

As is the norm for the studio, DreamWorks delivers top notch animation, with the world of Trolls expanding to various new lands while still maintaining a hand-crafted look. The kingdom of Country Trolls, for instance, resembles a child’s arts and crafts project, with houses that appear to have been created from wood and felt. Queen Barb’s armada, meanwhile, is not at all subtly inspired by a Mad Max film, while the cultures she leaves in ruins behind her feel like something out of a much darker film. And, of course, the character animation is as great as one would anticipate, with all of the Trolls being just as cuddly and lovable as they were last time (it’s just a shame, again, that none of this can be seen in the theater).

Overall, Trolls World Tour succeeds at what it’s trying to do as an enjoyable romp, though I’d have to watch it again to decide if it’s a “great” sequel or not. Which brings us to another thing: the price. With a suggested retail value of $19.99 for a two day rental, many people may be perfectly content with simply waiting for the Blu-ray, which can already be pre-ordered from various stores (as for myself, money proved to be no object on the matter. Thanks, website advertising revenue!). Then again, if all you want is a break from the dreary state of the world right now–even in a movie where characters throw toilet paper around like it has no value and engage in “hug time” instead of social distancing fist pumps–twenty bucks might be worth it for a song-filled, cheerful vacation.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Trolls World Tour
DreamWorks Animation, Universal Pictures
Rated PG
90 minutes
Directed by Walt Dohrn