What happens when something in your past that you’ve been trying to get away from catches up with you? If you’re a Troll, like Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) or Branch (Justin Timberlake), it’s an excuse for a glitter-filled road trip that exposes you to a wider world of textures, tunes, and boy bands in Trolls Band Together.
The DreamWorks Animation threequel starts by revealing that Branch was the youngest member of the boy band BroZone, with his brothers John Dory (Eric André), Spruce (Daveed Diggs), Floyd (Troye Sivan) and Clay (Kid Cudi). When the band broke up, the brothers went their separate ways, and haven’t seen each other since. So, when John Dory shows up asking for Branch’s help in rescuing Floyd, who’s being used by the teen pop duo Velvet and Veneer (voiced by Amy Schumer and Andrew Rannells) to cover their own lack of talent, it’s time to hit the road — and get the band back together.
A Different Kind of Road Movie
“I feel like the Trolls’ world allows us even more room to play because we can go to unexpected lands,” says producer Gina Shay. “Our movie is a road picture and there are always surprises everywhere, so there are psychedelic worlds, and we could basically really use our imaginations a lot. A lot of the look was originally based on a DIY aspect and was kind of spun out from there, so it feels cohesive.”
The previous film, Trolls World Tour, also had taken the Trolls characters out of the felt and fiber world that made their debut film so visually striking, but Walt Dohrn — a veteran of the franchise, who has returned to the director’s chair for this installment — wanted to spend more time in each world.
Moving away from felt and fiber was initially a surprise, says production designer Ruben Perez Reynoso, but it also provided an opportunity to use the underlying idea behind the visuals of Trolls to design the new worlds based on the theme of materials and styles from past eras. For example, when designing Vacay Island, where Spruce (now calling himself Bruce) has started a large family that runs a tropical beach resort, there were plenty of options.
“We tried macrame, we tried sand — all sorts of different things, and finally arrived at, well, what if everything is water themed?” he says. “That influenced all our decisions about how we were going to design it. The forest was made out of foam noodles and inflatables, the water was made out of those little water beads kids play around with and clog your shower with, so it just turned out to be like another sandbox for us.”
The road later brings the group to an abandoned roadside amusement park, which a group of Trolls have converted into a refuge from their former enemies, the Bergens. “It had the scale of a human or a Bergen, so the sets that the Trolls lived in were made up of candy and little prizes from the prize box,” Perez Reynoso says. “The couches in this set were made out of marshmallows, and the coffee table was a yo-yo, and that was a lot of fun.”
The park also steered the plot back toward family reunions with the introduction of Viva (Camila Cabello), who turns out to be the sister Poppy never knew she had. Dohrn says the idea came about when the film was in production during the COVID-19 pandemic, and everyone’s relationship with their family changed to either complete isolation or total engagement.
Boy Band Nostalgia
Going into boy band territory was a natural, given the real-life history of franchise superstar Timberlake, who started his career in the 1990s as the lead vocalist for NSYNC. Dohrn says they got there in a bit of a roundabout way, starting with the idea of family bands — the Bee Gees, Billie Eilish and Finneas, the Beach Boys, etc. — and evolving into a focus on boy bands, with Timberlake’s blessing.
“He really embraced the idea, and he developed it along with us,” Dohrn says. “He has a super healthy, good attitude about it, and I think he’s at the time now where he’s far enough away away from it that it was fun for him to kind of reminisce as well.”
Another key challenge was differentiating the brother characters — as well as Poppy and Viva — while maintaining a family resemblance, says co-director Tim Heitz. “It’s a mixture of finding the right areas to be similar and the right areas to push out,” Heitz says. For example, you’ll see similarities between the facial structure of related characters. “But then we realized that in terms of the body shape and the hair shape and all that stuff, that’s where you could really push a lot, and that helps sort of define how each character kind of lived their life.
If a story’s only as good as its villains, then Trolls Band Together is in good shape. Velvet and Veneer are a pair of talentless teens who achieve celebrity by sucking the musical talent out of Floyd. The process is slowly killing Branch’s older bro, who’s trapped in a diamond cell that can only be broken by the pure notes of musical family harmony.
Unlike the Trolls, Velvet and Veneer are doll-like creatures with plasticine hair, shiny plastic skin, rubber hose movements and a resemblance to 1930s animated characters such as Betty Boop. “We wanted them to possess these kind of the opposite values of the Trolls,” Dohrn says. “But their design was really complex because we started just drawing in kind of generic shapes before we figured out who they were.”
Their assistant, Crimp (Zosia Mamet), steals every scene she’s in, and was a case of a simple idea that turned into a real technical challenge. Heitz says the idea originally came from the care packages DreamWorks would send the crew while they worked on the movie remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns. “Our character designer was like, oh, what if she’s made up of all that crimped paper?” Heitz says. “It fits with the idea that she is like this frazzled assistant.” It proved to be one of the more difficult characters to animate.
Animation fans will surely take note of the 2D sequences, created in collaboration with Titmouse. They occur when the heroes hit the “hustle” button in their walking vehicle Rhonda — which is a mix between a 1970s RV that walks like a dog, a submarine and a soccer ball — and things speed up as the iconic 1970s disco theme kicks in. The sequences tap into a lot of 2D aesthetics you won’t expect from a DreamWorks feature: R. Crumb comics, The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and low-fi 1990s cartoons such as Beavis and Butt-head and Ren & Stimpy.
If there’s one essential ingredient to a Trolls movie, it’s music. Finding the right tunes for the story, and then getting the rights — and incorporating it into the planning of the movie so that, like the voice performances, it can be animated to — is a great challenge, Dohrn says. “It’s a lot of kind of trial and error but I think for the most part most of them are the ones we wanted from the beginning,” he says.
With so much music — and choreography — in the movie, it was important to decide on the tunes early enough to incorporate them into the production schedule, even with a temp track, early enough to achieve the right final effect. “We have to put that in the schedule properly, but we are able to move forward fairly well with what we have, even if it’s not the exact vocal performance yet,” Dohrn says.
The third act of the film takes place in Mount Rageous, a mecca for pop-crazy teens that was designed to be the opposite of the Trolls world. “This had to be sharp-edged — superficial with glossy, reflected, glowing materials,” Perez Reynoso says. It also had to show the scale difference between the seven-inch Trolls and the vinyl doll-like characters of Velvet and Veneer. “We would do things like, there might be a pearlescent floor, and when we zoom into that floor at the Troll scale, we see that it has a pattern of different roughnesses that you wouldn’t see as you pull back,” Perez Reynoso says.
The climactic sequence sees the Troll trying to rescue Floyd before the superficial singing duo can drain the last of his energy during a concert that evolves from a stage show into a bumper-car chase on roller coaster tracks.
“That one was particularly its own particular brand of insanity,” says Dohrn. The crew worked for a time on a third act that was maybe more emotionally resonant, but didn’t match the excitement the story seemed to promise its audience. The result was exciting because it was challenging and original. “We looked and looked, but I couldn’t really find a movie that combined the balletic nature of a car chase mixed with a musical — especially one that’s got songs from the ’80s and ’90s,” Dohrn says.
The sequence was built starting with beat boards, with elements added in — and taken out — until finding a version that was exciting, coherent, and that all the departments on the film could pour their creativity into. “It’s a little bit of a madness, and it still amazes me today,” Dohrn says.
And at the end of it all, there was still one question that had been asked over and over during production that had still not been answered: If it’s about boy bands, and it’s got Justin Timberlake in it, will there be an NSYNC reunion?
“That was the question at the beginning of the movie,” Dohrn says. “I’m like, ‘No, not at all. That’s not Justin’s thing anymore.'” But at one point, there was a boy band medley in the movie that included an NSYNC song, and ideas started to spark. “I think it came from Justin at one point that was a little bit later in the process,” Dohrn says. “I think once everything started coming together, and we saw what it was doing as far as boy bands goes, and I think it just started there … If they’ll do it, this would be an amazing thing to do.”
DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls Band Together opens in theaters on November 17 through Universal Pictures.