‘Trolls World Tour’ Changed the Film Industry As We Know It (Seriously)
What was once an innocuous kiddie blockbuster, with its silly soundtrack and vaguely anti-Trump themes, is now an industry-shifting test case for how we’ll view movies forever.
Given the direction things have been going, maybe it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise that Trolls World Tour would end up being the most important and consequential film in modern cinematic history.
There’s no denying that the kaleidoscopic acid trip of bright colors, blaring music, and big hair is the pop culture event of the year, at least—which is to say it is the biggest thing to happen to families’ quarantines since “screen time” became all-the-time, so long as it keeps the kids out of your hair for 90 minutes or so.
The sequel to the 2016 animated musical comedy—which made $346 million, contributed the most relentless earworm in years with Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and birthed the kind of kiddie fan obsession that spawns live shows, interactive exhibits, and oh-so-much merchandise—arrived on-demand Friday.
For $19.99, essentially the price of a movie ticket in New York City (a truly depressing fact), you can rent and watch Trolls World Tour at home, the same day it was planned to be released in theaters...at least the ones that are still open. That’s a big deal.
Anyone with a child under the age of 9 knows this already, and is likely penning a tear-stained handwritten letter to Dreamworks and Universal thanking them for the miracle of an entertainment option for their kids as the days of restless self-isolation trudge on. But there are also major industry repercussions for the future of studio movies—not just the bastardized cartoon interpretations of beloved childhood toys—and how and when we see them.
Because of nationwide shutdowns due to the coronavirus, Hollywood has been scrambling to make alternative plans for the billions of dollars worth of movies that were slated to open while no one is allowed to leave their houses to see them.
Many studios began shifting their big titles—A Quiet Place 2, Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan—to later in the year. Universal threw out typical theatrical release windows and began making movies that were currently in theaters—The Invisible Man, Emma, Never Rarely Sometimes Always—available on-demand way, way sooner than normal. Disney rushed Frozen 2 to its Disney+ streaming service.
Trolls World Tour is a test case. At a time when the rise of streaming services and dips in theater ticket sales have spurned a sort of existential crisis for studios, the results stand to have seismic reverberations. This is the first time a major studio film, one planned to rake in truckloads of cash for Universal, is being released directly to consumers at home. But this isn’t just a stopgap to stave off pandemic-era financial loss.
Its inevitable success—with everything going on, I can’t see how this doesn’t break some sort of on-demand rental record—will make studios throw away conventions on what it means to release a film and how its performance is measured. And it certainly will have families reconsidering how they prefer their movie nights to go.
Saving about $50 on tickets for a family of four and not having to wrangle the kids into the car or worry about their behavior in the theater sure sounds appealing, especially once, when all this is over, the economic impact of the coronavirus stands to be catastrophic—particularly on the average family’s entertainment budget.
It’s clear that Universal has big plans for Trolls World Tour. The marketing muscle behind it bordered on tyrannical.
Hamfisted tie-ins clearly planned before the coronavirus terrorized episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Top Chef this week, while the determination to make this on-demand release a Big Deal was evident in the wall-to-wall blanketing of commercial breaks with ads as the films’ stars popped up in grainy Zoom videos and Skypes for an aggressive remote talk-show circuit.
It delights me to no end that it’s Trolls World Tour, of all movies, that is this pivotal, industry-changing film. The future of movie theaters and the film industry rests on the shoulders of Trolls World Tour. I don’t know! It makes me laugh! And you know what? So did Trolls World Tour.
Maybe it could be attributed to some sort of Stockholm Syndrome.
Trapped in my apartment all day, every day, seeing endless commercials for the damn thing. Talking about it over and over again with colleagues because of what it could mean for this industry. I’ve fallen in love with my captor, and my captor is a diminutive pink elfin creature named Poppy who has phallic hair twice the length of her body and is voiced by Anna Kendrick, singing Trolls-specific lyrics to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as I bop along on my couch.
The premise is unbearably thin, stretched into a feature-length film by a new song every two or three minutes. I don’t care! Turns out the Trolls World Tour soundtrack slaps.
Poppy (Kendrick) is Queen of Pop Village, her will-they/won’t-they friend Branch (Justin Timberlake), the Jim to her Pam, always by her side. Unbeknownst to them, they’re not the only Trolls in the kingdom. Once upon a time, there were also Techno, Funk, Classical, Country, and Hard Rock Trolls. Together they made up the six strings of music on which they all thrived. “There was something for everyone. It was a big party.”
But soon, there was discord. In one version of the tale, the one that Poppy wants to hear, the respective tribes became intolerant of each other’s music. They each took a string and went their separate ways, living peacefully apart in isolation. Call it... societal distancing. Hey-o!
What actually happened is that the Pop Trolls stole the strings of all the other tribes, appropriating their sounds and identities, destroying their music completely. That is some pointed commentary! To preserve their genres while they had the chance, the tribes ran away with their strings in the middle of the night, hoping to save their music from the tyranny of pop.
In any case, now the Hard Rock Troll Queen, Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), is on this Mad Max: Fury Road-like crusade to steal all the strings for herself and force “one nation of Trolls, under rock.”
Because I had to believe there was something important and profound about this movie on which the future of the film industry hangs in the balance, I spelunked for deeper meaning. The deep meaning of Trolls World Tour. “Is this...Trumpian???” I scribbled in my notes, perhaps reaching and perhaps because YEAH, KINDA!
Queen Barb doesn’t want to unite the Trolls. She wants to fix a divided nation with assimilation. It’s not peace she wants. It’s power. There’s something very MAGA about her Hard Rock mission, even in her personality. “I’m tired now,” she moans, after railing against Poppy for daring to question her motives and make her autocratic ambitions more difficult. “Hating things takes a lot of energy.” Hmmm…
There’s both sides-ism here too. (I’m truly the worst.) The Pop Trolls are at first startled to hear that not everyone in the kingdom adheres to their version of utopia. These other trolls sing differently, dress differently, and dance differently. Most frighteningly, some can’t even grasp the concept of Hammertime.
At first Poppy thinks imposing her Pop ways on all of the different tribes is the best way to get everyone to come together again. But as she starts to appreciate the value of their unique cultures, she comes around to the lesson. “Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are,” she says, in a passionate monologue to Queen Barb. “You have to be able to listen to different voices, even if they don’t agree with you. They make us stronger, more creative, more inspired.”
Kelly Clarkson sings a gorgeous song. Mary J. Blige shows up. Sam Rockwell yodels (???) and that’s a wrap. That’s film history.
Once the world starts to open up again, it’s going to be irrevocably different, in many ways. It’s eerily meta that the themes of Trolls World Tour seem to grasp that. How the film industry deals with that will be fascinating.
It’s an arena not exactly known for swiftly adapting to anything, but disruption has been happening at a brisker pace than ever in recent years, and the coronavirus shutdown accelerated that to breakneck speed. Make of it what you will that Justin Timberlake and James Corden singing “Who Let the Dogs Out” as animated trolls is providing the soundtrack.