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Perspective: The problematic message at the center of ‘Trolls Band Together’

Family isn’t fundamental here. It’s discardable based on whether or not it meets your present needs

SHARE Perspective: The problematic message at the center of ‘Trolls Band Together’
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This image released by DreamWorks Animation shows the characters John Dory voiced by Eric André, left, Branch voiced by Justin Timberlake, center, and Spruce voiced by Daveed Diggs, in a scene from the animated film “Trolls Band Together.”

DreamWorks Animation via Associated Press

“Trolls Band Together” is the third installment in a series that turns familiar toys from the 1990s into a pop music party.

The first film was an extended music video for Justin Timberlake’s single “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” The latest entrant is the same for ‘N Sync’s reunion single, “Better Place,” which is worth adding to your Saturday morning chores playlist.

“Trolls Band Together” is engaging, bright and colorful for the kids. And for their adults, it offers beautiful animation, a well-voiced cavalcade of minor comedic characters (Kenan Thompson’s Tiny Diamond is a standout) and a killer soundtrack. I’d be happy to take my kids to see it if I weren’t worried about what morals they’d pick up from the story.

The film is meant to be about the power of family togetherness. In a prologue, we learn that Branch (Justin Timberlake), the protagonist from our first two films, was in an Osmond-esque family boy band before he and his brothers broke up and went their separate ways. 

Cut to today, pop sensation Velvet (Amy Schumer) has convinced her brother Veneer (Andrew Rannells) to trap one of the brothers in a diamond cage that can steal his talent and allow them to be famous. The other brothers reunite to save him and sing the “perfect family harmony,” the only thing that can break the cage.

The “perfect family harmony” is referenced so often that it becomes a running joke. But there’s no questioning that the film wants to be about the importance and power of family. 

If the film was content to be about restoring family bonds to rescue a brother, it would be a light, fun, easy-to-digest family film. But it also includes a problematic message about cutting family ties.

“Trolls Band Together” is far from the first children’s film to explore the theme of family bonds. “Coco,” for example, included the message, “We may have our differences, but nothing is more important than family.” “Lilo and Stitch” said, “Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

But, in “Trolls Band Together,” the overarching sentiment is that families can indeed be left behind. One part of the dialogue says that you knew who I was, “but you asked me to change anyway. That’s not OK, even for family.”

This comment comes near the end of the film, when Veneer has a change of heart and rejects Velvet, not because of her fraud, kidnapping or violence, but because she didn’t accept him for who he was. Family isn’t fundamental here. It’s discardable based on whether or not it meets your present needs. 

This dialogue brings to mind larger questions about boundary-setting and under what circumstances one should cut out family members. These aren’t trivial questions, nor are they one-sided. They’re questions that Branch also faces. Throughout the film, he deals with his reputation as “the baby” of the group. When the brothers reunite and begin practicing, he is again treated like the baby. 

With a huff, he leaves the group to rescue his brother on his own. “Don’t let anyone stop you from being the you, you are.” 

In the film’s climax, the remaining brothers feel guilty for their behavior and join back up with Branch. They never reckon with his decision to leave. Family is important, the message seems to be, but it’s more important to do whatever you feel like doing, and if your family is worth being with, they change for you.

The hypocrisy is lost in the film since everyone is their own protagonist. Everyone must change for everyone else, except you. Don’t let anyone tell you to change. 

The film is breezy fun for the whole family — as long as you don’t stop dancing to the incredible soundtrack long enough to wonder what messages the film is actually highlighting.

“Trolls Band Together” opens wide on Nov. 17, 2023.