The original “Trolls” movie in 2016 was about the unique privilege associated with being a Troll — kaleidoscopically colorful lives, unrelenting joy, hourly hug-a-thons. Chipper, loopy songs peppered the film, which presented pop music, and Pop Trolldom, as sources of joy that are unimpeachably good (if a little oblivious).
What horror lies beneath, though? In “Trolls World Tour,” which was released last week, Poppy, queen of the Pop Trolls, discovers that her tribe isn’t the only one out there, and that the Rock Trolls are intent on conquering them all, a residual effect of a time when Pop Trolls were, in fact, invaders. The real lesson of the movie? That one Troll’s privilege never comes without another Troll’s suffering.
And yet in a movie that features musical megastars including Justin Timberlake, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson, J Balvin, Ozzy Osbourne and Gustavo Dudamel, it is, somehow, the genial, sometimes grating funk-soul singer-rapper Anderson .Paak who’s tasked with the sociopolitical heavy lifting.
He voices Prince D — a Funk Troll, but really a Hip-Hop Troll — who interrupts Poppy (played by Anna Kendrick as a walking embodiment of Troll privilege) on her quest to save Troll Kingdom from the evil, rhythm-deficient intentions of the Rock Trolls, led by Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom). Prince D presents her with a brief lesson in appropriation history called “It’s All Love (History of Funk)”: “The Pop Trolls started snatching up all of the strings/Put the melodies on top of poppy lil’ beats/They cut us out of the scene.”
Turns out all that Pop Troll joy was built upon the subjugation of other musical Trolls. The actual truth: Pop absorbed all of the things that made each of the other styles great and watered it down! Pop wrote the history books — a scrapbook, in this universe — suggesting that it wasn’t, in fact, the aggressor!
For 6-year-olds who sang along with Poppy and Branch (a tepid Timberlake) last time around, this might be a destabilizing plot twist. But this is exactly the sort of conversation that’s been de rigueur in music criticism for the last couple of decades, especially when compounded by the film’s other plot throughline, the impending imperialism of the Rock Trolls.
This is the film’s central battle: poptimists vs. rockists. (Or, in non-critic terms, the idea that pop music has real cultural value vs. the belief that rock determines the framework through which popular music should be analyzed.) But in “Trolls World Tour,” which reads like a position paper written by someone extremely, perhaps unreasonably frustrated about how the dark side of pop history was erased by the first film, both sides are flawed.
There are, in fact, six Troll tribes — Pop, Funk, Country, Techno, Classical and Rock — that do not overlap (apart from Cooper, a Funk Troll raised by Pop Trolls). The Country Trolls — fronted by Delta Dawn, voiced by an almost embarrassingly good Kelly Clarkson — are robust and protectionist, just like in real life. Classical and Techno merit little narrative exposition, however. There are characters representing reggaeton (played by J Balvin) and K-pop (played by the girl group Red Velvet) as bounty hunters living between tribes, though ones inclined toward dance-offs.
As for pop, the genre is presented as a tonally narrow emotional ethos. “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,” says the Pop Troll king. This is, of course, a very specific and narrow definition that doesn’t much resemble the pop landscape in 2020 — no Post Malone-style miserablism, Drake-esque sing-rapping or Weeknd-like glittery angst.
In this pluralist kingdom, rock is a convenient villain — its Trolls dress in shades of gray and black and prefer clothes and vehicles with spikes; its chords zing out from guitars like blades; and it is also out of fashion. The Rock Trolls come off like a tribe of aggrieved ancients, eager to restore their draconian dullness. They’re also cool villains: Perhaps the next generation of troublemaking kids will turn to rock for inspiration. Cue a heavy metal resurgence around 2030 or so.
Though rock and pop are at odds in “Trolls World Tour,” the movie suggests their impulses are fundamentally the same — to colonize and absorb from others. Pitting pop against hip-hop or funk would have unwelcome racial overtones.
And so all the wisdom comes from the Funk Trolls, whose king and queen are played by Blige and Clinton, black music legends. Even though Poppy ultimately foils the Rock Trolls’ plan for rock zombification of all the Troll nations, it’s only with the wisdom she gleans from the Funk Trolls that she’s set on that path.
In the first “Trolls,” most of the rapping came from Zooey Deschanel’s character, a grave error corrected here with Anderson .Paak’s Prince D, and also Tiny Diamond (Kenan Thompson). There’s another nod to hip-hop’s generative power, too. In the climactic scene (spoiler alert), in which Poppy rescues everyone from rock’s clutches, the thing that begins to restore life, color and music to all of the Trolls is Cooper’s heartbeat, followed by Prince D’s beatboxing. Pop gets the glory, but hip-hop is the foundation. Business as usual.