"Life isn't all cupcakes and rainbows.."
If you don't know anything about this movie, it's quite a ridiculous set-up. Remember those ugly little troll dolls with the bright and colorful hair that kids collected in the eighties? It's based on that toy franchise. No story, no mythology to tap into, just those dolls. The only good thing I could think about it's existence was that a lot of animators and artists were going to be able to feed their families for that coming year, but it turns out they were doing more than most people realized.
I fully expected to plaster an insincere smile on my face and grit my teeth for 90 minutes, enduring an overload of glitter, rainbow colors and ridiculously upbeat songs, and for the first 10 minutes, that's pretty much where I was. Until I realized 5 minutes later that I wasn't gritting my teeth anymore. Instead I was genuinely enjoying myself, along with the kids who were delighted by the mix of textures and creatures and, yes, riotous color. I wasn't even cringing (much) at the remix of Peer Gynt's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" - and believe me, I was primed for outrage. (In the Hall Of the Mountain King, from the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg, was one of those brilliant pieces of classical music I listened over and over as a child, sitting rapt in front of my father's speakers, imagining the story sequence of a brave hero invading the mountain fortress of the Goblin King.)
How did this happen? I'm not completely sure but Dreamworks did something right (and sadly underrated) with this movie. They took a serious look at how to be happy, did a great job of explaining how to get there, and they made putting it so simply look deceptively easy.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it followed some fairy tale principles. The peril is real (the trolls are in serious danger of being eaten) and that danger, though never graphic so as not to be suitable for young children, is never dumbed down or downgraded so as to be confusing. Being eaten means dying and never coming back, and that loss is real to the characters - no magical resurrection or going back in time to fix it. It's something kids understand and appreciate, making surviving - and a resolution - very satisfying for them.
The story premise is straightforward: trolls - who are the epitome of happiness, (and teeny, think insect size) are being eaten by the 'Bergens' (think ogres and house sized) every 'trollstice, as that's the only way the Bergen's can experience happiness - to eat the incarnation of it, literally. At the beginning the trolls are prisoners, and the Bergens are greedily looking forward to Trollstice, which happens to be the very next day, and to eating a troll and feeling happy again. The trolls make a run for it and escape into hiding, leaving the Bergens extremely unhappy, kicking out the power-hungry chef in disgrace for losing them all, and leaving the Bergen boy prince who was about to eat his very first troll, completely miserable, never expecting to experience happiness in his entire life... Cut to 20 years later and the Bergen prince is now and unhappy king and the King of the trolls daughter is soon to become queen. Queen-to-be Poppy wants to throw the biggest party of all time, against the advice of the one gloomy troll (called Branch), who believes they're still in danger. She does anyway, betrays their location to the disgraced chef and many trolls are captured and taken to the royal kitchen of Bergen town. Poppy, who managed to escape "by a hair", sets out optimistically, and ridiculously under-prepared, to save her friends and people, and discovers life is not all "cupcakes and rainbows".
I kind of love that the movie takes a real tongue-in-cheek approach to the use of color, glitter, optimism and scrapbooking, while at the same time celebrating those things. Take a look at the trailer:
All the technical aspects meet today's high standards and, with a world of fabric and doll making materials, it's a pretty wonderful playground for the imagination - something the animators obviously had a lot of fun with. Backstory and occasional narration pops out in little scrapbooking sequences, which could easily be annoying if they weren't so funny. And yes - it's funny - wonderfully, innocently, purely funny, without all that self-referencing studio business that seems to be standard of animation these days.
A note should be made about the music, which was also done far better than I could have predicted. Again, I fully expected to be teeny-bopped to within an inch of my tolerance, (and admittedly the obnoxious party scene - which was supposed to be obnoxious, came close), but, after the first 15 minutes, I stopped cringing with every first bar of a new tune and instead found the pacing and treatment of the music throughout to be sensitively done, to the point that it even made for some extremely touching moments. By itself the soundtrack might be a bit much to take, but in context, it works far better than I could have anticipated.
While clearly aimed at including young children, I keep reading about adults who have been taken by surprise at how much they enjoyed the movie, and blown away by how wonderful the message is. The movie is unashamedly bright, positive and happy (something I can usually only take in small doses) and celebrates the enjoyment of beauty, song and dance, as well as other less obvious things, like the wonder in the world and the power of friendship. Though the 'turnaround' near the end was necessarily simplistic, by that stage I was happy to let it slide and enjoy the characters enjoying their hard won happiness.
If I had known what this movie was truly like, I would have collected every worried child I knew on November 10 and taken them to see this movie. There are a lot of people who could use a dose of this message right now, and its power to restore a little hope and happiness shouldn't be underestimated. Instead, we should be sharing it. (And if you have cupcakes, share those too.)