Troll dolls, those novelty toys with fluorescent Don King hair, are now the stars of their own movie. It's a balance between feel-good fun and the kind of offbeat humor that aims to keep adults in their seats.
Tending to these relentlessly charming creatures is veteran animator Mike Mitchell. He's worked with many different, er, species (a sponge, chipmunks, ogres) in his career. Mitchell claims Shrek is the most difficult of all of them. Trolls, he says, are by far the easiest. That's because Mitchell made all of these stubby little creatures — save one named Branch — extremely happy. Think pink, yellow and purple happy. The trolls sing and dance and have regular "hug times."
Mitchell says he never collected trolls, so he did some homework. The first Troll doll was made in 1959 by a poor, Danish woodcarver named Thomas Dam. Dam's daughter was afraid of the greedy, baby-snatching trolls who live under bridges in story books. "So he decided to create a new kind of troll, one with outstretched arms, a smile, ready for a hug," says Mitchell.
In the Trolls' village in the film, the leader of "hug time" is the fluorescent pink heroine, Princess Poppy. She's every trolls' cheerleader. Think Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm meets My Little Pony. Her favorite hobby: Scrapbooking.
Since Mitchell wanted everything in the movie to look and feel handmade, the job of creating those scrapbooks fell to a very skeptical Priscilla Wong: "I'm like, 'Scrapbooking? Isn't that kind of what grandmothers do?' "
But Wong, a visual development artist for DreamWorks, knew she shared the same irreverent humor as the others working on Trolls.
"It's like magical creatures barfing rainbows and pooping cupcakes. That kind of sums up my aesthetic," she laughs.
For the first attempt at a scrapbook, Wong says she used aluminum foil, old candy, crinkled paper and scraps of faux fur. "The directors joked that it looked like I took roadkill and scrapbooked it," she admits. So she went back to the drawing board and ended up using your basic, store-bought materials: Colored felt and paper.
When Princess Poppy isn't scrapbooking or pepping up her friends or initiating hug time, she and her fellow trolls are singing and dancing. News flash: That Justin Timberlake song "Can't Stop The Feeling" was originally written for Trolls.
"I mean, he said he was going to make it a hit, and I laughed at him. But, lo and behold, I guess that's what Justin Timberlake does," says Mitchell. Timberlake, who also served as the movie's executive music producer, voices the pessimistic troll Branch in the film.
With that "sunshine" in their "pockets," as the song goes, the trolls are prey for the Bergens, gigantic monsters with bad teeth, designed in colors like grey and avocado green. The miserable creatures hunt and eat trolls because they want their happiness. The Bergens' anthem is the sardonic Gorillaz single "Clint Eastwood," first released in 2001 — a bit of edgy nostalgia for restless parents.
Ultimately, Trolls is not a battle between good and evil, but rather between gloom and glitter. Mike Mitchell thinks we need a story right now about finding happiness.
"I find all of the news — and most media and the Internet — is so dark and it's so depressing. It's so scary, not just for kids but for me," he says. "So I just wanted to make a film that really just makes people think about happiness. Let's not undervalue a positive attitude, and let's explore happiness and maybe discover that we're in charge — and that happiness is deep down inside every one of us."
If that means making a movie with scrapbooking trolls and cute creatures that poop cupcakes, so be it.