To some movie industry forecasters, CGI neon trolls that love to hug and sing are also, quite possibly, harbingers of the end of the modern theater experience. Trolls: World Tour was supposed to be a simple sequel to the 2013 DreamWorks original, based on the toy line popularized in the early 1960s. The movie follows the continuing adventures of Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake), two trolls from the Pop music tribe who discover that there are other troll races — Funk, Classical, Techno, Country, and Rock — living in their world. Then a pandemic hit, theaters shut down across the globe, and a kids’ movie set off an industry-shaking controversy.
On April 10, Universal released Trolls: World Tour directly to video-on-demand services and made around $100 million in its first three weeks. Five million rentals across the U.S. and Canada later, the sequel has reportedly generated more revenue for Universal Pictures than the first Trolls did during its five-month theater run, according to The Wall Street Journal. In response to the celebration, AMC refused to play future Universal movies in their theaters moving forward.
What the controversy has obscured is how narratively bold the second Trolls movie is. In fits and spurts, the DreamWorks movie introduces ideas about colonialism, cultural appropriation, and music criticism, all through the prism of a family-friendly comedy.
But when Jonathan Aibel — a screenwriting and producing veteran, known for his work on films ranging from Kung-Fu Panda to SpongeBob SquarePants — and his partner Glenn Berger began plotting Trolls: World Tour in 2016, the goal was simple. “When Jeffrey Katzenberg ran the studio, he kept saying, ‘We need something bigger. I want something bigger,’” Aibel explains over the phone. “We were thinking, ‘We like music other than just pop music. Could there be a world in which we start finding out there are other kinds of music?'”
When did the idea for the plot for Trolls: World Tour start to form?
It was probably right as we were releasing the first one. We had a feeling that what we had was something audiences were going to respond to, and that’s when you start thinking, “If we were to make a second, what would it be?” So my partner Glenn [Berger] and I started brainstorming. “What do you want to see? What would the world be? What would the next step for these characters be?” We had all sorts of ideas. There were kind of Games of Thrones versions where it got a little more serious. There were smaller versions, where something happened in Troll Town.
Trolls: World Tour thematically seems to be about the dangers of cultural appropriation and colonialism. What inspired such a heavy topic for a kids’ movie?
We certainly didn’t say, “Let’s make a movie about cultural appropriation.” I’m not sure we have, but people are seeing that in there, so maybe. Sometimes there’s just stuff in the air, and we’re humans too. So you read, and you talk to people, and you’re living your life and watching the news and the things in the world wind up filtering into your movie. We initially came at it from a character point of view. “What if you have Poppy the leader, but [she] is young and kind of naive and only knows her own way of life, and she starts meeting these other rulers in other places and realizes, ‘I don’t know anything.'”
A lot of music critics have noticed that one central part of the story is Barb, who is the rock queen, thinking that rock is the best genre. This has been a rockism debate that’s raged among music critics for years. When did you guys think this is something that could be interesting for this movie?
I think it just came about because growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s rock that was there. It was something I liked. It felt like if you were going to meet some kick-ass trolls, they would be your hard rock trolls. In this universe, that kind of makes sense. Of course, I should say it’s done with love. It’s not to make rock the evil genre of music, because I personally have a huge fondness for it.
I certainly saw growing up that your music tribe, it doesn’t seem that same way for kids now, but back then, if you wore a jean jacket with Judas Priest painted on the back that said something about, “This is who I am.” But I think deep down most people weren’t that tribal in their music. People love all sorts of things. But I think that’s more modern thanks to the internet; thanks to Spotify you have access to so much music. Back then you would get it from the people you knew. So if you only knew people who liked this certain kind of music, that was the music you heard.
A classic piece of critical writing was Kelefa Sanneh’s New York Times piece, “The Rap Against Rockism,” where he proposes that pop music, disco, hip-hop and all these forms of music are just as important as rock. Did you guys ever read that when you were making this movie?
I didn’t. I wish we would have read that. It’s very possible I read it when it came out, and it’s somewhere within me, but the whole “Rock is dead” and “Where is guitar music,” in a way these all become intellectual exercises. It feels like [rock] has always been there, because when I grew up it was there. But when my parents grew up it wasn’t there, and then suddenly the Beatles were there. So these things do kind of come and go.
When you guys were coming up with the story, did you have any inkling you’d be working with legends like Ozzy Osbourne and George Clinton?
We definitely were hoping, but you never know. So we wrote the king and queen and were hoping, “there’re so many people you can get, there’s so much funk royalty,” to be in the movie. Then it becomes someone else’s problem in a way. Who’s available? Who’s interested? Who can even get to a recording studio? There’s all that technical stuff. It just felt like this should be a part where somebody is representing the history of a genre.
One of my favorite quotes from the movie comes from Anderson .Paak’s character. He says, “Scrapbooks, those are cut out, glued, and glittered by the winners.”
That was actually in our very first draft of the script.
That was one line that survived from day one to the screen. I think it’s because as we were writing it we said, “Oh, that would be funny.” But then you realize, I think that’s kind of the point of the movie in a way. We stumbled into, wait a minute, this could be something more than just, “Let’s celebrate different kinds of music.” That’s when you start getting into, “Who’s telling the story?” Poppy is someone who goes through life believing what she’s been taught only to realize, “Well it’s maybe a little more complicated.” That’s a very eye-opening moment for a teenager to realize: The things that your parents are teaching you and your culture is teaching you may not be what actually happened. That seemed a really powerful moment for the characters, undeniable enough that it never got changed.
When did you guys decide the pop trolls would be the other villains of the movie?
I think it was probably that scene right there. We said, “This would be really cool if they go to the Funks [trolls] and they find out that well, you know, a lot the music you think is your music, like The Beatles, Elvis, that was kind of borrowed from these singers here. Here’s the real stuff.” That seems, in a way, a part of music. Who takes something? Where does it come from? What’s appreciation? What’s appropriation? What’s homage? What’s theft? There’s no easy answers to this.
It felt like in a movie about music, music ends up becoming a lot more than just music when you accept that it represents peoples’ culture and peoples’ history. That was the moment where we said, “Part of a journey of becoming an adult is questioning your beliefs, your people, your own history to say, ‘This is what I’ve been taught? Is that true? And if it isn’t what actually happened, am I ok with that?’”
Trolls: World Tour is being talked about as kind of this inflection point for the movie industry. Emotionally what was your process that this was going to be on the big screen and then it’s in peoples’ homes? Obviously, it worked out, but it must have been challenging for you seeing it go through this [pandemic] that none of us could predict.
It’s rewarding and disappointing at the same time, because you know that these things are going to have a life in peoples’ homes. You make things for the giant screen, but then you know someone is going to watch it on their six-inch phone. So it’s not like you don’t make things knowing this is where they’ll eventually get to, but it’s about music and music is in many ways a communal experience, going to a concert, being with people, and feeling the beat and the emotion and the volume and the energy. That’s such a huge part of music, and in a movie that’s about community and coming together, to do that in a theater is what you want. Then suddenly, to be in a world where not only can this movie not do that, but music can’t do that, it’s pointing out how much we’ve lost in this past month, two months.
Everyone is worried about the state of movie theaters and if they will they come back. What are your thoughts on that? Are you positive? It’s a scary moment.
It is, but I think [theaters] have to [come back]. Yes if I got into a movie theater and the person next to me sneezes, I’m going to freak out. But maybe, eventually, I won’t. People have been performing plays for thousands of years and I think it’s hardwired into us to want to be with other people experiencing something. So I think we’re going to have to find a way to get back to that.