Trolls, and the problem with "irreverent" kids' movies

This weekend sees the release of DreamWorks’ latest star-studded animated comedy, Trolls. Based on the popular toy fad of the ‘90s, Trolls follows a cute troll princess in her quest to save her kingdom from an invasion of decidedly less-cute trolls hell-bent on eating them. Like all DreamWorks movies, the trailer promises adventure, gags, and lots of dance parties set to the latest pop tunes.

I hate it already.

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Okay, let me back up a little. I don’t hate the film itself; I haven’t even seen the damn thing yet and likely never will. I don’t hate the blatant ninetiestalgia cash-in it represents. I don’t hate the catchy Justin Timberlake song that’s been monopolizing the airwaves all summer. I don’t even hate the concept of making movies out of children’s toy lines.

No, what bothers me is the tone conveyed by the film’s trailer and marketing: The wide-eyed cutesiness, the shallow jokes, the sugary aesthetic, the aggressive fight-for-your-right-to-party sentiment that’s been a staple of DreamWorks movies and is apparently elevated to plot point here… It all feels so calculated, so carefully programmed to trigger a mechanically enthusiastic response from parents and children.

“So, what?” I hear you type. “That’s nothing new. Kids just happen to like pretty colors, cute round-faced critters, and dance music. Lighten up!” Well, dear imaginary reader, the problem isn’t in the cuteness, so much as the “cool” irony framing it that’s become the default mode of virtually all children’s animation.

It’s not just DreamWorks, it’s everywhere: In Illumination Entertainment and their inescapable Minions, in the never-ending cascade of Ice Age sequels, and yes, even in the past six years’ worth of Disney movies.screencap-1

Now before I start to sound too much like a grouch, let me clarify: I love Disney, including their most recent efforts. I liked Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia, Big Hero 6, and Wreck-It-Ralph. But this return to form after a long decade of duds has been largely due to changes in attitude regarding the stories they tell, particularly if they’re based on fairy tales. The most obvious change concerns character psychology and relationship dynamics; by making the “Disney princesses” more proactive and developing each one’s relationship to their respective film’s other major female character, the writers of Tangled and Frozen attempted to correct the studio’s past perpetuation of patriarchal myths and mostly succeeded. But this modernization doesn’t just affect storytelling politics: it also translates to a change in style and tone. And therein lies the problem.

It all started in 2001, during a brief period when DreamWorks was surpassing Disney in every respect. Shrek was a monster summer hit whose success was owed largely to its merciless skewering of Disney tropes, values, and marketing. It didn’t just subvert fairy tale codes by making its hero a grumpy farting ogre or giving its princess kung-fu skills and a lethal singing voice; Disney was the actual villain of the piece, symbolized by a narcissistic fairy tale-hating lord with a rude-sounding name who looks suspiciously like Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner and runs a city that looks a lot like Disneyland.

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And of course, the kids loved it. It was funny, clever and just naughty enough to make them feel slightly more “adult” watching it, but not to the point where their parents didn’t feel comfortable letting them. Finally, Disney’s longstanding monopoly on feature-length western animation was eroding! Jeffrey Katzenberg and his team were offering us a new, cool, and impertinent alternative to Disney’s tired old platitudes!

Of course, what we were really witnessing was simply a disgruntled rich executive getting back at his ex-boss for not giving him a promotion. But it didn’t matter. Disney’s hold on pop culture weakened gradually in the following years as DreamWorks consistently outperformed them at the box office. Meanwhile, the folks at Pixar weren’t just churning out hit after hit, they were getting showers of critical praise for their profound tales of self-discovery to the point of overshadowing their parent company. Disney had to get back on track or risk fading into irrelevance. In 2009, they made an attempted return to their ‘90s golden age with The Princess and the Frog, but the film, while well-received and commercially successful, failed to reach the desired box office numbers. What was needed was the best of both worlds, something that would adapt to the new era of self-aware comedy ushered in by DreamWorks all while remaining true to Disney’s classical roots.

And thus 2010 gave us Tangled, the film that started Disney’s revitalization. It had all the traits that have come to define the updated Disney fairy tale: An assertive female protagonist, deeper female relationships, a more egalitarian dynamic with the leading man, and a much more playful, wisecracking tone to balance the story’s heavier psycho-dramatic elements. Its heroes were as witty as they were complex, quipping in the face of danger, always taking every peril just seriously enough for the audience to be engaged, but never too seriously. Even the opening narration, courtesy of roguish male lead Flynn, starts off with self-referential jokes about the role he’ll play later in the story.

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While it’s considerably less jokey, Frozen still displays similar DreamWorksian tendencies, from the broad comedy derived from Anna’s klutzy nature to the characters’ wide-eyed, cocked-brow design. These aren’t inherently bad choices, but they’re symptomatic of the age of tongue-in-cheek smart-alecky-ness inaugurated by Shrek: It’s not enough to defy conventions, subvert norms, and question values perpetuated by traditional stories; you have to show how knowing you are about it.

When he reviewed Tangled for the conservative publication First Things, Armond White criticized the film for substituting the original fairy tale’s spiritual metaphors with fast-paced hijinks and “political correctness”™. I disagree with White roughly 60% of the time, but his review does pinpoint an indisputable lack of reverence that permeates most modern children’s media. By “reverence”, I don’t mean an uncritical acceptance of every value embedded within traditional folk stories, but rather a serious respect for how these stories work and the feelings of wonder they arouse within us.

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As our technological prowess increases, so too does our media savvy. With so many decades of pop culture embedded in our collective minds and more democratized means to analyze it, we’ve become more aware of the prevalence of tropes, clichés, and recurring storytelling patterns. And like all things, Hollywood has capitalized on this by flattering our built-in cynicism and congratulating us for being so clever. For better and for worse, irreverence is now cool.

And that, really, is the core of the issue: When this semi-rebellious impulse becomes “cool” to the point of permeating even otherwise thoughtful films like Tangled, it loses much of its value. As if afraid that the wondrous mysteries of childhood tales might lower our guard, we prefer to wrap them up in a slick, sophisticated modern package of pop songs, jokes, and knowing winks to the audience. In our efforts to stay awake, we’ve impaired our ability to dream.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with injecting levity, irony, or anachronisms in a children’s film, let alone with making those qualities define its tone. You should, however, question the reasoning behind the creators’ decision to do so, and the effect this decision has on the story’s emotional impact. Enjoy the jokes, get involved with the characters, take delight in the reinvention of old stories with modern sensibilities. Just remember what made your childhood self love those stories in the first place, and ask yourself if any part of it still remains. If the answer is no, you’d better hope whatever has taken its place has more to offer you than pop tunes and snark. Childhood is too important to waste on commodified cynicism.

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  • Kradeiz

    A pretty good analysis. I like Tangled (way more than Frozen) but there was always something about it I found lacking, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the lack of reverence for the original story. While I fully support trying to incorporate modern sensibilities into fairy tale retellings, there is a way to do that and still capture the spirit and magic of the original. Beauty and the Beast is a great example of that, and that’s probably part of the reason why it’s still so well-regarded today, even in this more cynical age.

  • 333: SC

    I tend to agree with you. But, does this mean we are now self-aware of our self-awareness? Are we post-postmodern? I wonder if the genre which probably now fills that void of the un-ironic fairy tale or heroic story is the super hero film. Also, can not all this really be traced back to Princess Bride??

  • Deneb T. Hall

    Personally, I really enjoyed Tangled, but I see where you’re coming from here. There is definitely a certain (for lack of a better word) SINCERITY about the better animated films that gives them a certain something – Beauty and the Beast, for instance, while it certainly had its jokier moments, was dead serious about the main plot and characters. There may have been cute clocks and candlesticks capering about on the sidelines, but everything truly important was treated as such, and you felt the weight of it.

    While I do think that sincerity and irreverence can coexist to some degree, there’s no denying that things are slipping way towards the latter end of the scale. Disney, I think, still has a fairly good balance, but yeah. Trolls. Ugh. It’s been a long time coming, though; I personally would track it a bit further back than Shrek. I’d say it dates back to the ’90’s, when films like Aladdin (which everybody missed the point of) or, for a live action example, the Scream movies were coming out.

  • Thomas Stockel

    “In our efforts to stay awake, we’ve impaired our ability to dream.”

    That was an awesome sentence in a very well written article.

  • William Wehrs

    The truly sad thing is LAIKA is trying to be an exception to this trend, such as their most recent film, Kubo and the Two Strings. Nobody saw the film, however, and it bombed at the box office. Furthermore, none of LAIKA’s films, even the more successful ones, come close to the numbers of Dreamworks and Disney. As a result, there is no way any studios will attempt to duplicate LAIKA’s tone.

  • jokmank

    This is exactly the reason why I can’t watch the new Netflix Voltron. I saw the first couple of episodes, and it looks awesome and writing seems good, but I can’t stand that every serious and dramatic moment is basically just a setup for a joke.

    I also think the problem is that people who make TV and movies now grew up on stuff like Simpsons and MST3K, and became defensive against somebody making fun of their work like that.