“There are a lot of unfortunate things occurring in today’s world, so why not go to the movies and see something that looks and feels like a party, and have a good time?”
From the creators of Shrek comes DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, a smart, funny and irreverent comedy about the search for happiness, and just how far some will go to get it.
The film transports audiences to a colorful, wondrous world populated by the overly optimistic Trolls, who have a constant dance in their step and a song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have Trolls in their stomachs.
After the Bergens invade Troll Village, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the happiest Troll ever born, and the overly-cautious, curmudgeonly Branch (Justin Timberlake) set off on a journey to rescue her friends.
Their mission is full of adventure and mishaps, as this mismatched duo try to tolerate each other long enough to get the job done.
Trolls showcases a unique world inspired by fibers, flocked materials, fur, glitter and bright colors.
Audiences will be totally enveloped in this tactile and inviting universe—the filmmakers call it “fuzzy immersion”—which is unlike any experienced before on film.
Then, there’s the hair—bright, candy-colored coifs grown to gravity-defying heights, the hallmark and crowning glory of Trolls everywhere.
Trolls can be enjoyed by youngsters as a unique world rich with unforgettable characters, music, humor, adventure and color; as well as by adults, for whom the film’s overarching theme of the search for happiness will resonate long after the end credits have rolled.
Indeed, the Trolls’ all-singing, all-dancing, all-hugging world is all about happiness, which infuses every frame of the film.
Trolls explores how we treat others and, more importantly, how we treat ourselves. Its emotion-charged message is that happiness comes from within, and can be a powerful and infectious force when it’s spread.
That’s a potent and relevant idea, especially in today’s world, which has largely given way to negativity, fear and imbalance.
The story of Trolls suggests that each of us can bring change through positive thinking and actions, while highlighting the importance of doing the right thing, even—or especially—when facing formidable challenges.
Happiness was foremost in the minds of Trolls director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn, even during the earliest stages of story discussions with screenwriters/co-producers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and producer Gina Shay.
The two filmmakers had worked together on DreamWorks Animation’s blockbuster Shrek franchise, and their familiarity with the beloved ogres of that world led them to their distant cousins, the Trolls.
Their research into Troll lore, which sprang from Scandinavian mythology, revealed that Trolls came in myriad shapes and sizes, from monstrous giants to tiny creatures who granted wishes.
As DreamWorks had done with Shrek, Mitchell and Dohrn decided to adapt the Trolls mythology to create a new universe and set of characters.
The filmmakers note that they did embrace one aspect of previous Trolls history.
“We were fascinated by how these creatures were originally scary-ugly and evolved over time into being cute-ugly,” says Mitchell. “In the 1970s they became a symbol for happiness.”
Adds Dohrn: “Their simplicity and imperfections were relatable and made people feel good.”
As they continued their explorations of all things Troll, Mitchell and Dohrn zeroed in on the motifs of happiness and optimism, and their imaginations ignited.
“Those ideas compelled us, as did the opportunity to create a story and mythology from scratch,” says Dohrn. “We decided it was time to start spreading some joy again. Mike and I had a blank slate, from which we could create anything with these characters, their story and their environments. With happiness as a guidepost, we wanted to create a film with a mix of fun, adventure, heart, music, color and textures.”
In many ways, says producer Gina Shay, another of Mitchell and Dohrn’s Shrek franchise alumna, Trolls hearkens back to the 1970s, a time “when there was this feeling of freedom; disco, pop and dance music was everywhere; and everybody seemed to be roller skating. We wanted the Trolls to reflect that joy in their society. They’re also very peaceful.”
The Trolls even have a special kind of watch that reminds them to hug every hour on the hour. No matter what they’re doing, when the watch blooms, it’s “hug time.”
Notes Mitchell: “Part of being happy is connecting with others, and what better way to show that than with a hug.”
“On the other hand, the Trolls’ neighbors, the Bergens, are neither enlightened nor peaceful,” Shay notes.
“So the Trolls must try to apply that ‘70s feeling to the Bergens and teach them that happiness comes from within, and that you can find it in many different ways.” That’s no easy task because the Bergens lack harmony and joy and can find happiness only through outward, more harmful means. Their bliss is less in their control, and less satisfying when it’s achieved.
Mapping out the story
With that through line of happiness in place, Mitchell and Dohrn began mapping out the story, enlisting the help of the screenwriting team of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who had been the architects of another animated film universe, having written the three Kung Fu Panda blockbusters for DreamWorks Animation.
Berger calls the new assignment “a real creative change of pace, and so much fun.” Aibel adds that “the biggest gift to us as writers on Trolls is its very premise. We started with the world’s most optimistic character and the world’s most pessimistic, and then launched them on a road trip.”
Okay, so it’s nice to be happy. Happy is good. But why make a movie about it? Mitchell returns to the idea that “there are a lot of unfortunate things occurring in today’s world, so why not go to the movies and see something that looks and feels like a party, and have a good time?”
Dohrn adds a similarly upbeat perspective: “It’s nice to make a film that spreads optimism and at the same time asks some important questions about it, and how it originates.”
For Shay, the film is all about fun and surprises. “Trolls has an abundance of irreverent humor, which is completely unexpected, as well as a lot of heart,” she says. “It also immerses you in a world you’ve never experienced before.”
For its two lead actors, the theme of joyfulness is a key reason they joined the project—and it provided an unforgettable memory once they wrapped.
“Trolls makes me smile and laugh,” says Timberlake. “I love its non-cynical humor. Happiness connects us, and funny enough, the character I play, Branch, is trying so hard to avoid it. In the end, of course, he really can’t.”
“When I watch the movie I wish its universe was real,” Kendrick says. “And that I could visit it.”
Technology for Animated Filmmaking
The technology available for animated filmmaking is more sophisticated and photo-realistic than ever before. In many features, for example, grass has never looked grassier and water never more… watery.
But the Trolls filmmakers had a very different kind of vision in mind for these bleeding-edge visual effects tools. They decided to create a world unlike any other experienced on film. “We wanted to transport audiences to a handmade universe,” says Mitchell.
Production designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin based the film’s look on Fiber Art textures, including felts, velvet, macramé, and flocked materials. The filmmakers called it “fuzzy immersion,” a process they say will make audiences want to reach into the film and touch the characters and settings.
The design, like everything in Trolls, is informed by joy and merriment. Much of the film, says Cronkhite-Shaindlin, is an “explosion of color, which puts an exclamation mark” on that motif. “No matter what obstacles Poppy encounters on her journey, the environment is usually fun and over-the top-colorful. ‘Dark and moody’ is just not very Troll-like,” she adds.
Cronkhite-Shaindlin also drew from the 1960s and ‘70s, the era when the cheerful versions of these mythological creatures became popular. “The ‘70s, in particular, are referenced a lot,” she explains. “Trolls are kind of hippy-esque in the way they live communally, in nature. And they’re probably vegetarians.”
Adding another important dimension and personality to Trolls is the music. A top priority for the filmmakers and Studio was ensuring that all the songs propelled the story forward. “The lyrics are part of the narrative,” adds Dohrn. “We never wanted the story to stop just because a song began.”
Mitchell and Dohrn outlined the story and then searched for songs that fit the tone of a given moment, or provided insight into a character’s personality. It was a back-and-forth “audition” process that stretched on for years, encompassing hundreds, if not thousands, of tunes. Initially, the filmmakers envisioned using only classic songs, to facilitate a shared experience for audiences. But when Timberlake came aboard as executive music producer, it was an easy decision to have him write or co-write some new ones, as well.
Doing double duty on Trolls, says Timberlake, “was an embarrassment of riches.
“I’ve always wanted to oversee a motion picture soundtrack,” he continues, “and I thought what better way to jump into that than when I’m already acting in the movie. I feel closer to the story having played a character in it. Voicing Branch was definitely helpful in writing music for Trolls.”
Having Timberlake assume those responsibilities was the perfect marriage of artist and material. “It felt organic for Justin to become our partner,” says Shay, noting his instant connection to the project. “When we presented some images and rough scenes to him, Justin just clicked—he was out of his chair and you could feel his enthusiasm. He took the music to unexpected levels of sophistication and also brought the tone; he really embellished the sounds from a production standpoint and made them sound so much better.”