***This article originally appeared in the April ’20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 299)***
Like any good pop confection, DreamWorks Animation’s 2016 hit feature Trolls told a sweet, warm and fuzzy heartfelt tale full of catchy pop tunes that left audiences hungry for more. And more of pretty much everything that made the first movie a hit is exactly what director Walt Dohrn had in mind for the sequel, Trolls World Tour, which arrives April 10 in theaters (which are still open to the public) and on VOD on the same day.
“It was always like, okay, there’s gotta be more characters, more new worlds, and — I think because music was such a positive experience in the first film — we said there’s gotta be more music,” says Dohrn, who co-directed the first CG-animated outing.
Trolls World Tour delivers all of that and more, telling a story in which the newly crowned Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) discovers that hers is one of six tribes of Trolls, and each is dedicated to a different genre of music: Pop, Country, Techno, Classical, Funk and Rock. That discovery comes as Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) launches a scheme for rock ’n’ roll to conquer and rule over all other types of music, propelling Poppy and Branch (Justin Timberlake) on a quest to unite all the genres in peace, while figuring out their still-new relationship.
The movie introduces characters to populate each land, bringing in as voices such music icons as Ozzy Osbourne, Anderson .Paak, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson, Gwen Stefani, Gustavo Dudamel and the K-pop group Red Velvet. The film also features the voices of James Corden, Sam Rockwell and Ron Funches.
Growing a narrative and a world big enough to include them all is a big task, one that began during production on the first movie and resulted in a rough first draft for the sequel ready by the time the first Trolls was released in November 2016.
Expanding Musical Horizons
Producer Gina Shay says the project began as a way to make sure the first movie was capable of telling more stories if there was demand. “We wanted to make sure in making the first movie that it was a world that could be expanded,” she says. “We all thought, how about we expand the world and subvert the audience’s expectations by creating this expansion through musical genres.”
The focus on hard rock as the genre that would incite the story came directly from the stereotype of hard rockers’ dismissals as inferior of everything from pop to disco, says co-director David P. Smith. ”It’s where everyone’s gut goes when you think of hard rock,” says Smith.
Leading the charge is Queen Barb, whose look and attitude was inspired by such classic rockers as Debbie Harry and Joan Jett and fleshed out beyond the surface flash of a music video to give her an extra dimension. “We started exploring the different depths of what makes this character tick, especially her admiration for her music and her community and her friendships and her father and things like that,” says Smith. Her father, King Thrash, is voiced by Osbourne — essentially playing himself — in one of the movie’s funnier cameos.
Expanding the fabric-based visual textures of Trolls lead to some interesting places as well, with production designer Kendal Cronkhite applying the fabric concept to each of the different worlds. The results were as diverse as the musical genres themselves, Dohrn says, creating everything from the underwater techno tribe and a country-inspired quilted desert landscape to a classic leather, denim and studs look for the rockers.
Hitting the Right Notes
Key to the movie is the choice of music, which ended up being a more even mix of Timberlake-produced originals and covers of classics from each musical genre. Shay says sometimes the right song for a moment in the movie was easy to find, while others took a lot more work — all of it subject to licensing availability and affordability.
“We wanted to make sure that we were being as diverse as possible within each genre,” says Shay. “And we just cast the most authentic people who could sing in that style, who also have comedy chops and acting chops. And when we cast for Trolls we do cast people who feel like they carry the core methodology or the core belief system of Trolls, which is positivity, empowerment.”
Some lyrics to popular songs were changed to fit the narrative, such as Cyndi Lauper’s iconic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Lauper’s “True Colors” was used in a key moment in the first film and helped define the franchise’s musical identity, so Dohrn says they wanted to include another of her songs in Trolls World Tour. The altered lyrics were tried out internally, with a rough demo put together before the studio reached out to Lauper for her input and approval.
Animating the new characters that populate these worlds — as well as the returning characters — was headed up by animation supervisor Carlos Puertolas. A huge fan of the first movie, Puertolas is a newcomer to working on the franchise and says that gave him a new perspective on the project. “In this movie, we’re exploring so many different worlds that we decided to kind of double down on that idea and try to make each world feel a little different and have their own way of moving and have a little bit of a different kind of style of animation,” he says.
One way in which Puertolas says they changed things up was to assign animation supervisors to each world in the movie to help define each one. For example, in the Rock Troll world, the performances tried to incorporate the unpredictable behavior associated with rock stars, along with camera work with a more handheld quality.
Animators were given a workload of about 14 to 15 shots, with each being given a moment to shine. “You had your own moment to come up with your own idea and kind of be the owner of that moment,” Puertolas says.
Dohrn says the film’s character animation takes inspiration from stop-motion and the movements of Jim Henson’s Muppets. He cites as influences the UPA style and the work of Ward Kimball doing things like holding poses. “We also thought this kind of stylized movement can live side by side with something more subtle when it needs to,” he says. “Having more real movement next to a stylized movement, it’s like it’s all one language. It stays true to the character.”
Choreographers also were part of the mix, creating dance moves the animators could use in the many musical sequences. With the characters having cartoon proportions like huge hands or an oversized head, there was a lot of adapting the moves to characters and moments when they work. ”[Animators] would use that as reference in some areas where it could work, and in other areas it was more of an inspiration,” Puertolas says.
On the technical end, Trolls World Tour used the studio’s new proprietary renderer Moonray, which was not yet available on the first film. And motion blur was removed in many shots to give the movie a stop-motion feeling.
And if Trolls World Tour is a hit, Dohrn says he’d love to return once again to their bright, musical world. “I feel so close to these characters after six years, that they start to have a life of their own,” he says. ”And I enjoy that.”
Universal/DreamWorks’ Trolls World Tour begins performing in U.S. theaters and on-demand on April 10.