Review: ‘Trolls Band Together,’ starring the voices of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Eric André, Kid Cudi, Daveed Diggs, Andrew Rannells, Amy Schumer, Troye Sivan and Kenan Thompson

November 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

John Dory (voiced by Eric André), Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) in “Trolls Band Together” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Trolls Band Together”

Directed by Walt Dohrn; co-directed by Tim Heitz

Culture Representation: This animated film sequel, whch is the third film in the “Trolls” movie seires, has a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Latino) voicing characters based on troll dolls.

Culture Clash: A troll doll named Branch has his secret past exposed as a short-lived boy band member with his brothers, who must all reunite to save one of the brothers, who has been kidnapped by fraternal twin pop stars.

Culture Audience: “Trolls Band Together” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the “Trolls” movie series, the movie’s cast members, and pop songs from the 1970s to 2000s.

Pictured clockwise, from upper left: Spruce (voiced by Daveed Diggs), Bitty B, also known as Baby Branch (voiced by Alan Kim), Floyd (voiced by Troye Sivan), Clay (voiced by Kid Cudi) and John Dory (voiced by Eric André) in “Trolls Band Together” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation) 

Although not as good as the first two “Trolls” movies, “Trolls Band Together” has its charms with high-energy entertainment and appealing characters. The movie’s biggest flaw: The story is overstuffed with subplots and stunt-casting cameos. There’s nothing award-worthy about “Trolls Band Together,” but it’s the type of animated movie that delivers what it’s supposed to deliver to its intended audience. “Trolls Band Together” (which is the third movie in the “Trolls” series) seems much more geared to children under the age of 8, compared to the first two “Trolls” movies.

Directed by Walter Dohrn and co-directed by Tim Heitz, “Trolls Band Together” is a sequel in the movie series that began with 2016’s “Trolls” and continued with 2020’s “Trolls World Tour.” The movies are based on Good Luck Trolls (toy figurines) created by Thomas Dam. The returning characters in “Trolls Band Together” include Queen Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and her boyfriend Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake), who go on a mission to reunite Branch with his brothers, who were all in a boy band together. They have to reunite in order to rescue one of the brothers, who has been kidnapped by villainous fraternal twin pop stars. Elizabeth Tippet wrote the “Trolls Band Together” screenplay.

The movie begins with a flashback from about 20 years earlier, to show the boy band BroZone, consisting of five brothers: the leader John Dory (voiced by Eric André), heartthrob Spruce (voiced by Daveed Diggs), the “fun” one Clay (voiced by Kid Cudi), the sensitive one Floyd (voiced by Troye Sivan), and the “baby” Bitty B, which was Branch’s stage name as the youngest member of the group. During a performance where Bitty B/Baby Branch (voiced by Iris Dohrn) made his stage debut with BroZone, the five group members form a pyramid with their bodies, with Bitty B at the top of this pyramid.

Unfortunately, Bitty B loses his balance, the pyramid collapses, and it causes a domino effect of various mishaps on stage that lead to the concert being cancelled. The brothers are so angry about this embarrassing incident, they argue backstage and decide to break up immediately. Bitty B/Baby Branch gets much of the blame for the fiasco that happened on stage.

The brothers go their separate ways and lose contact with each other. Branch feels so guilty about what happened, he doesn’t tell people in his current life about his brothers and about his past as a short-lived member of BroZone. However, Branch’s past catches up to him when John Dory makes a surprise appearance at the wedding of King Gristle (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Bridget (voiced by Zooey Deschanel), who is Poppy’s best friend. Branch is also a guest at the wedding. This is how Poppy finds out about Branch’s brothers and their BroZone past.

John Dory tells Branch that their brother Floyd has been kidnapped by twin pop stars Velvet (voiced by Amy Schumer) and Veneer (voiced by Andrew Rannells), who are jealous that Floyd has talent, but the twins do not. Velvet and Veneer secretly lip synch their songs. Of the twins, Velvet is the one with the nastier personality. She frequently bullies Veneer and their personal assistant Crimp (voiced by Zosia Mamet).

John Dory found out where Floyd is being held captive and was able to talk to Floyd, who is being held in a diamond cage. Floyd tells John Dory that the cage can only be broken by the sound of perfect family harmony. And you know what that means: A mission to get the band (namely, BroZone) back together.

The rest of “Trolls Band Together” is the expected mix of musical scenes (with pop songs from the 1970s to 2000s), new characters being introduced, and more secrets being revealed. “Trolls Band Together” is also an obvious promotional vehicle for the reunion of *NYSNC, the boy band that made Timberlake famous. The *NSYNC reunion song “Better Place” (co-written by Timberlake, Shellback and Amy Allen) is heard in two different versions near the end of the movie. Other original songs in “Trolls Band Together” are “Family,” “Perfect” and “It Takes Two,” all co-written by Timberlake, Mike Elizondo, Michael Pollack and Emily Warren.

Making return appearances are Guy Diamond (voiced by Kunal Nayyar) and his son Tiny Diamond (voiced by Kenan Thompson), two glittery and talkative Trolls. Tiny ends up being the automobile driver for the mission to reunite BroZone. A princess character named Viva (voiced by Camila Cabello) has a surprise connection to one of the main characters. It’s a subplot that really didn’t need to be in the movie and just distracts from the main story.

“Trolls Band Together” is packed with celebrity voice actors, but at least half of them have screen time that’s less than five minutes each. To its detriment, “Trolls Band Together” went a little too overboard with this stunt casting. One of these cameo appearances is RuPaul Charles as Miss Maxine, the sassy officiator at the wedding of King Gristle and Bridget. The other members of *NSYNC have voice roles as their Troll alter egos who appear briefly toward the end of the film: JC Chasez is Hype, Joey Fatone is Ablaze, Lance Bass is Boom and Chris Kirkpatrick is Trickee.

“Trolls Band Together” isn’t great, but it isn’t horrible either. The visuals are attractive but not groundbreaking. The movie’s main saving grace is the talent of the voice cast members (Kendrick continues to be a standout), who make parts of the movie engaging by sheer personality when these parts of the movie could be just average if less talented voice actors had these roles. As long as viewers don’t have high expectations for “Trolls Band Together,” the movie can be enjoyed for being a crowd-pleasing animated film.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation will release “Trolls Band Together” in U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2023. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2023.

Review: ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,’ starring Kunal Nayyar, Lucy Hale, Christina Hendricks, David Arquette and Scott Foley

December 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kunal Nayyar and Lucy Hale in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry”

Directed by Hans Canosa

Culture Representation: Taking place over 14 years, primarily on the fictional Alice Island, Massachusetts, and briefly in Providence, Rhode Island, the dramatic film “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A cynical bookstore owner, who is depressed over the death of his wife and his financial problems, gets a new outlook on life when he adopts an abandoned child and falls in love with a sales agent who works for a book publisher. 

Culture Audience: “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based and will appeal to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and sloppily constructed dramas.

Pictured in front: Kunal Nayyar, Christina Hendricks and Scott Foley in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” should have been titled “The Lifeless Story of A.J. Fikry.” It’s a weak, boring and jumbled mess with confused tones and unanswered questions. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a weepy melodrama or a romantic dramedy—and ultimately fails at being either or both. Viewers will learn almost nothing about the movie’s self-pitying title character except that he likes to whine a lot when his life doesn’t go the way he wants.

Directed by Hans Canosa, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is based on Gabrielle Zevin’s 2014 novel of the same name. Zevin wrote the lumbering screenplay for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” as if it were a book with many chapters removed instead of a cohesive and enjoyable story. It certainly looks like Zevin might have been too close to the source material to not have better judgment in deciding what would work and what would not work in a movie adaptation of the book. There are too many times in the movie where a subplot is introduced and then left to dangle undeveloped.

Part of the problem is how choppy the timeline is in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” which takes place over 14 years. The movie spends too much time showing repetitive scenes in one part of A.J. Fikry’s life and then rushes through other parts of his life that needed more screen time—or at least more substance or explanation. It’s this disjointed approach to the movie that eventually sinks it and will be a turnoff for a lot of viewers.

In the beginning of the film, bookstore owner A.J. Fikry (played by Kunal Nayyar) is living a miserable and lonely life on the fictional Alice Island, Massachusetts, which has the population of a small town. And no one loves to talk about how unhappy A.J. is more than A.J., who complains about his life to anyone who’ll listen. His narcissism immediately makes him a very annoying character.

A.J., who lives alone, is a 39-year-old widower who is still in deep despair over the death of his wife. (It’s not made clear in the movie how long she’s been dead.) Grieving over the death of a spouse is understandable. The problem is that A.J. takes his negative feelings out on the customers in his small store (which is called Island Books) by being very rude to them. His excuse? “Since my wife died, I hate my work,” A.J. tells a doctor when A.J. ends up in an urgent care clinic after A.J. has a panic attack.

A.J. is also depressed because his store is close to going out of business. A.J. blames it on the popularity of e-books. But it’s obvious that A.J.’s lousy customer service has a lot to do with driving customers away. A.J. repeatedly gripes to people that that he’s “poor,” when he’s really not. He’s a middle-class person having financial problems. Being “poor” is worrying about how to pay for life essentials, such as food and basic shelter. A.J. doesn’t have that problem.

A.J. is depicted as a borderline alcoholic who drinks too much wine until he passes out when he’s home alone. His diet consists mainly of boxed frozen dinners. All of this is supposed to make viewers feel sorry for A.J., but he’s often so obnoxious, it will be difficult for people watching this movie to see what’s so interesting about this irritable character.

The beginning of the movie shows A.J. being visited at his store by a book-publishing sales agent named Amelia “Amy” Loman (played by Lucy Hale), who is 30 years old, and who works from her home in Providence, Rhode Island. The movie mentions later that Alice Island is a five-hour trip one way from Providence, and can be accessed by ferry. As soon as Amelia and A.J. have their first conversation, it’s obvious that they will later become each other’s love interest. We’ve seen this formula many times already: A future couple meets for the first time, and one person is standoffish and dismissive to the other, but they have a spark of attraction that gets ignited later.

Amelia has a perky personality that gets a little deflated when she tries and fails to get A.J. to buy a memoir called “The Late Bloomer.” Amelia explains that the author of the book is an 80-year-old man named Leon Friedman, who got married for the first time at age 78. Sadly, his wife died of cancer three years later. This movie is so poorly written, the math doesn’t add up in Leon’s story. Leon supposedly wrote the book after his wife died, which means that he would be at least 81 years old, not 80. Leon and “The Late Bloomer” become another ill-conceived and unnecessary subplot shown later in the movie.

Amelia says in her sales pitch about “The Late Bloomer” book: “I know this is a small book, but readers could fall in love with it the way they fell in love with ‘Angela’s Ashes’ or ‘Tuesdays With Morrie.'” A.J. tells Amelia in no uncertain terms that he’s not interested in buying copies of “The Late Bloomer” because he says the book sounds dull and “intolerable.” And in a very jaded tone of voice, A.J. then proceeds to name a long list of book genres that he doesn’t like (including memoirs), thereby making it clear that A.J. hates most types of books.

Why does A.J. own a bookstore if he has disdain for most books? He wants to sell the store, but he doesn’t think he’ll find any buyers who’ll pay a purchase price that he needs to make a profit. A.J. has a financial safety net that he plans to use to get rid of his money problems, but he runs into a setback for this plan.

A.J. has a rare first-edition copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” a book collection of poems that was first published in 1827. A.J. estimates that the book is worth a price that should get him several hundred thousand dollars if he sold the book. He’s so proud of the book, for a period of time, he kept it in on display in his store before deciding to keep it locked up in his home.

One evening, a drunken A.J. takes the book out of a locked storage display case in his home and says out loud to the book: “Cheers, you piece of crap.” The next morning, after waking up from a drunken stupor, A.J. notices that the book is missing. He looks everywhere for it in his home and is convinced it was stolen by someone who knows how the valuable the book is.

A.J. goes to the local police station to report that the book has been stolen. The person who takes the report is Alice Island’s police chief, whose only name mentioned in the movie is his last name: Lambiase (played by David Arquette), who is sympathetic but a little skeptical that the book was stolen. Nothing else of value was taken from A.J.’s home, and there were no signs of an intruder.

Because Alice Island is a small community, Lambiase already knows about A.J.’s reputation for being a heavy drinker. And so, Lambiase takes the theft report as a formality, but he hints that he thinks A.J. could have drunkenly misplaced the book somewhere in A.J.’s home. (It’s eventually revealed what happened to the book.)

The movie then shambles along with a lot of tedious and meandering scenes showing A.J. being a grouch, as well as the tension-filled relationships that A.J. has with his deceased wife’s sister Ismay Evans (played by Christina Hendricks) and Ismay’s husband. Ismay, who is pregnant in the beginning of the movie, is married to an arrogant and famous novelist named Daniel Parish (played by Scott Foley), who is very flirtatious with his female fans. Daniel is supposedly the closest thing that A.J. has to a friend, but Daniel and A.J. act like they don’t like each other very much.

Ismay isn’t too happy with A.J. because she thinks he’s “self-destructive” and has no friends. Ismay believes that A.J. is disrespecting the memory of her deceased sister by leading a life of such self-sabotaging misery. When A.J. tells Ismay that his valuable Edgar Allan Poe book has been stolen, Ismay says that there could be any number of reasons for why the book is missing. She tells A.J. that maybe he was sleepwalking, and he accidentally tossed the book in the ocean.

Soon after his book goes missing and A.J.’s financial woes get worse, he’s at the bookstore and is ready to close it for the night when he finds an abandoned and adorable 2-year-old girl named Maya (played by Charlotte Thanh Theresin) who has been left at the door. Maya has been left with a note written by her single mother, who says she can no longer take care of Maya, and asks the owner of the store to make sure that Maya gets a good home.

Why did Maya’s mother leave her child at A.J.’s bookstore? In the note, Maya’s mother says that it’s because she grew up loving books and figured that whoever owned the bookstore would be someone trustworthy. Maya and her mother were actually in the store a few days earlier. But because of his awful customer service skills, he barely noticed them when Maya’s mother asked for his help in finding a book. Maya’s mother eventually left the store without buying anything.

Maya was abandoned at A.J.’s bookstore at around 9 p.m. on a Friday, and A.J. brings Maya to the local police station. Ismay happens to be with him too. Lambiase says that the Massachusetts Department of Family and Health Services can’t be contacted until Monday. A.J. doesn’t think it’s right to leave Maya at the police station. Ismay is having a later-in-life pregnancy and doesn’t want any stress to complicate the pregnancy by taking care of a 2-year-old child. And so, A.J. surprises himself by offering to let Maya stay at his home for the night. He admits he doesn’t know how to take care of kids her age, but he thinks he can try.

You know where this is going, of course, especially if you’ve seen the trailer for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.” A.J. decides to keep the child, and he raises her as a single father. Before that happens, a few days after Maya was found abandoned, Lambiase and his deputy co-workers discover the dead body of Maya’s mother on a beach. She died of an apparent suicide. Her name was Marian Wallace (played by Lizzy Brooks), and she was a 22-year-old student and champion swimmer attending Harvard University on a swimming scholarship.

The next thing viewers know, it’s 14 months later, and A.J. has adopted 3-year-old Maya (played by Estella Kahiha), who is a playful and energetic child. A.J.’s time as a foster parent and the adoption process for Maya are completely erased from the story. The movie’s brief depiction of A.J. not knowing how to cope with a crying 2-year-old Maya on the first night she’s in his home doesn’t count as showing him spending quality time with this child. It’s a very clumsy fast-forward to the story to go from A.J. finding this abandoned girl to then adopting her.

How did a depressed, borderline alcoholic with financial problems get approved for this single-parent adoption? The movie never explains that either, but it’s implied that no one else wanted to take care of Maya. His financial problems apparently went away, because by the time Maya is shown at age 5 (played by Jordyn McIntosh), A.J. still owns the bookstore, and he never talks about being broke, like he does at the beginning of the movie. His drinking problem also magically disappears too, because it’s never mentioned or shown again.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” then takes another abrupt turn when the Maya subplot gets sidelined for a long and uninteresting stretch of the movie where A.J. and Amelia have an up-and-down, long-distance courtship that starts off very awkwardly. A.J. is attracted to Amelia and wants to date her, but she’s engaged to a man named Brett Brewer, who is in the military. Brett is never seen or heard in the movie, which is an obvious sign that the relationship isn’t going to last.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” than gets distracted with another subplot about the unhappy marriage of Ismay and Daniel. Viewers might be wondering, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t Ismay pregnant in the beginning of the movie? Where’s the child?” It’s later explained what happened to her pregnancy, but this explanation is dropped into the last third of movie when it should have been mentioned much earlier. This is the type of unimpressive and choppy storytelling in the movie.

One of the biggest flaws in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is how it never tells anything about A.J. Fikry’s backstory. Viewers never find out where he grew up, if he has any family members, or how and why he fell in love with his wife. It’s also never clear if it was a longtime dream of his to own a bookstore, or if he just fell into it. His dislike for most books that he ranted about to Amelia in the beginning of the movie is never really mentioned again.

The movie has some acknowledgement of Amelia’s family and backstory, but Amelia is depicted in a shallow way too. During their courtship, she doesn’t seem to care to find out more about A.J.’s family, his background, or how he’s taking care of Maya, nor does A.J. share that information. Amelia’s emotional baggage (she’s still not completely over her father dying when she was a child) is briefly mentioned.

Amelia has an opinionated widowed mother named Margaret Loman (played by Chandra Michaelsa), who eventually meets A.J. when she goes to Alice Island with Amelia for a visit. The movie never really succeeds in its efforts to convince viewers that A.J. and Amelia fall deeply in love. Amelia and A.J. seem like a couple that started out as friends and then ended up together out of loneliness and perhaps some emotional desperation.

Small but important details are completely ignored. For example, while A.J. and Amelia go on dates with each other, it’s never explained who’s taking care of Maya. She is never shown having a babysitter or nanny. A.J.’s parenthood is a flimsy plot device that has no real substance, based on how little screen time is given to Maya in her childhood. It isn’t until the last third of the movie, when Maya is 14 years old (played by Blaire Brown), that she is shown to have something close to a personality.

The movie then takes another drastic shift in tone for the most tearjerking part of the story in the last third of the movie, which is just a tangle of soap-opera-level plot twists. Tearjerking scenes work best when viewers feel like they’ve gotten to know the characters well enough to care about them. The character of A.J. seems very hollow, considering the movie reveals very little information about who he is as a whole human being. It’s like he dropped out of the sky to be put in an uninspiring and sloppily made movie.

The romance part of the story is very lackluster, since Nayyar and Hale do not have believable chemistry with each other as A.J. and Amelia. The cast members’ performances aren’t terrible, but they aren’t special either. The overall direction and film editing are amateurish, as if the filmmakers had no specific vision for the story, and just cobbled together a mishmash of scenes, with the hope that everything would hold people’s interest. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a title that suggests the movie is the story of a fascinating person. Unfortunately, A.J. is a protagonist whose life in this disappointing movie is the equivalent of a book with many blank pages in between a lot of rambling.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie’s release on digital and VOD was on November 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Think Like a Dog,’ starring Gabriel Bateman, Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox

June 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gabriel Batman in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Think Like a Dog”

Directed by Gil Junger

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Beijing, the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” features a racially diverse cast (mostly white and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old American boy who’s an aspiring inventor and his online gaming friend in China secretly find a way to make a device that gives people the ability to hear what a dog is thinking, but government officials want to get ahold of the device, while the boy is dealing with family drama at home, because his parents are on the verge of divorce.

Culture Audience: “Think Like a Dog” will appeal primarily to families with children younger than the age of 10.

Gabriel Batman and Megan Fox in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” is set in the early 21st century, there’s something very 1970s quaint about this “talking dog” movie, which has simplistic and preachy messages that are both endearing and annoying. Adults will know exactly how this formulaic movie is going to end, but very young kids (under the age of 10) could enjoy this ride, since the children in this movie are very relatable.

“Think Like a Dog” (written and directed by Gil Junger) seems like a throwback to the 1970s, when movies about family dogs (such as the “Benji” series and “A Boy and His Dog”) were starting to become very popular. Back in the 1970s, life was less complicated for American children, who didn’t have to deal with school shootings or cyberbullying. It was also a period of time when it was more plausible to have a movie where a boy and his “talking dog” team up for the boy’s plan to keep his parents from divorcing.

The concept of a child being able to save a marriage with the help of a talking dog is a lot for any kid to handle in a movie. But “Think Like a Dog” also throws in another heavy-handed plot of the kid trying to dodge getting in trouble with the government because his invention has interfered with important satellite signals that control the world’s economy. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The child prodigy at the center of the film is 12-year-old Oliver (played by Gabriel Bateman), who lives in an unnamed American city that looks like a pleasantly peaceful suburb. Oliver is a science and computer enthusiast, who keeps pictures on his bedroom wall of Elon Musk and a Mark Zuckerberg-like tech mogul named Ram Mills (played by Kunal Nayyar), also known as Mr. Mills. Oliver is an only child. His parents are Lukas (played by Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (played by Megan Fox), who are going through a rough patch in their marriage.

Lukas (who’s a soccer coach at a local high school) and Ellen (who works in a beauty salon) have grown emotionally distant from each other. Ellen and Lukas have been thinking about separating, but they haven’t told Oliver yet. But, of course, Oliver finds out, when he discovers that Lukas has been offered a coaching job at a college named Springfield University, which is a three-hour drive away from where they live, and Ellen isn’t exactly trying to stop Lukas from taking the job. If Lukas takes the job, it’s a way for him and Ellen to separate, and they plan to “figure it out” from there.

Oliver’s best friend is his mixed Border Collie dog Henry (voiced by Todd Stashwick), who has voiceover narration throughout the entire movie. Most of the “jokes” that Henry tells are the type of jokes that have been heard before in other “talking dog” movies that make the dogs sound like low-rent (but family-friendly) stand-up comedians. Henry shares his platitudes about life by saying that most humans don’t know the secret that dogs know: How to be happy.

Henry’s philosophy is that humans are always looking for ways to improve their lives instead of being content with who they are right now. (That’s easy to say, coming from a pampered house dog whose needs are catered to by humans.) What’s kind of contradictory about this movie’s message is that inventions are usually about improving lives, so Henry’s overly simplistic philosophy doesn’t really work when you consider that Oliver is an aspiring inventor.

Oliver spends a lot of time at home playing online virtual-reality games with a teenager in Beijing named Xiao (played by Neo Hooo, also known as Minghao Hou), who is equally passionate about science and computers as Oliver is. (By the way, this movie has a lot of positive references to China since Chinese-funded M-Star International is one of the production companies behind “Think Like a Dog.”)

Oliver and Xiao have never met in person, but they consider each other to be close online buddies. Oliver has been working on an invention that can read people’s thoughts. And lo and behold, Xiao calls Oliver to tell Oliver that he’s found a massive breakthrough in Oliver’s invention, which can be activated by using a massive processor. And to their delight, they find out that the invention works.

At school, Oliver is a typical nerdy type who is shy around a fellow classmate who is his big crush. Her name is Sophie (played by Madison Horcher), who is the typical nice but slightly aloof girl who seems to be almost perfect in every way. And since this movie is extremely predictable, there’s the school bully Nicholas (played by Billy 4 Johnson), who picks on Oliver; the bully’s spineless follower Brayden (played by Dillon Ahlf); and wisecracking student Li (played by Izaac Wang), who’s too precocious for his own good.

The movie has several contrived situations to make Oliver embarrassed in front of Sophie, who seems to be in pretty much all of the same classes as Oliver. The school is doing the play “Romeo and Juliet,” and in rehearsals, Oliver is embarrassed when he says a monologue and, as a Freudian slip, accidentally substitutes the name Sophie for Juliet.

Oliver is also embarrassed when he sees Sophie and her adorable female dog (a poodle mix) at a dog park, and he gets tongue-tied when trying to start a conversation with Sophie. The school bully Nicholas naturally has a big alpha male dog (a greyhound), which the movie portrays as being so popular with the opposite sex that the dog has female dog groupies. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

But Oliver’s biggest humiliation happens when Mr. Mills comes to town to give a guest lecture at the Young Inventors Expo. At the event, Oliver gives a demonstration of his invention that has the telepathic powers. Someone wears a tech headband that reads the brain, and that person’s thoughts show up on a computer that has a wireless connection to the headband. Oliver asks for a volunteer from the audience, and he foolishly chooses Brayden, who’s a known friend of school bully Nicholas.

Oliver asks Brayden to think of a color, and that color will be named by the computer. The computer results show that Brayden was thinking of the color blue, but Brayden says he was thinking of the color green. Nicholas then stands up in the audience, as people do in movies like this, to make a taunting remark and lead a chorus of laughter at how Oliver’s invention is stupid and doesn’t work. All of this happens in front of Oliver’s idol Mr. Mills.

A crushed Oliver goes home, and his life gets worse when he finds out that his parents are headed toward a separation. What’s a boy whose life is falling apart to do? He goes in his room and finds comfort with his best friend/dog, while viewers of this movie have to watch Henry in voiceover acting like a know-it-all therapist.

It’s just around this time that some satellite gobbledygook happens in the universe, which suddenly allows Oliver to hear Henry’s thoughts through the invention. (Henry ends up wearing a magical telepathic collar, so Oliver can hear Henry’s thoughts through this portable, wireless collar device.) Oliver is elated that he can now hear his best friend talk, but he also knows that if he tells people about it, they’ll think he’s crazy.

Henry is able to communicate these thoughts with Oliver telepathically: “When humans grow up, they start to focus on other things and forget about what matters. What are the two most important things in life? Love and family. We [dogs] don’t complicate things like humans.”

And so, Henry and Oliver hatch a plan to fix Lukas and Ellen’s shaky marriage: “We need to teach Mom and Dad to think like a dog,” Henry says, as if he’s Marriage Counselor of the Year. The “plan” is to remind Lukas and Ellen of their wedding day, by getting them to hear their first wedding dance song at Oliver’s school dance. The idea is that the song will trigger memories of happier times, and then Lukas and Ellen can fall in love again, and everyone can live happily ever after.

Of course, there has to a big dramatic scheme to get Ellen and Lukas in the same room to hear this song. And somehow, Oliver’s school dance is the only place that Ellen and Lukas can hear this song, as opposed to anywhere else where Oliver could easily play the song to his parents. And somehow, Henry is the only living being who can get Lukas and Ellen in the same room at Oliver’s school dance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Meanwhile, Oliver’s invention has messed with the outer-space satellite coordinates that control the world’s banks. And this satellite interference could cause total chaos in the world’s economy. Oliver’s telepathic invention literally ends up on the U.S. government’s radar at a place called the Global Cyber Protection Agency, which can pick up the dog Henry’s thoughts, which are misinterpreted as terrorist thoughts.

Why? Because when Henry thinks about urinating on the lawn of a white house in the neighborhood, the agency thinks it’s the U.S. president’s White House. Therefore, the agency thinks a terrorist is behind the mysterious interference in satellite coordinates. And so, two agents—Agent Munoz (played by Julia Jones) and Agent Callen (played by Bryan Callen)—are dispatched to find this dangerous terrorist, or else the world’s safety could be at stake.

Meanwhile, Oliver gets a big surprise when he’s visited at school by Mr. Mills’ efficient assistant Bridget (played by Janet Montgomery), who meets Oliver outside the school to show him a hologram message from Mr. Mills. In the message, Mr. Mills says he was so impressed with the idea of Oliver’s invention that he has invited Oliver to be his guest at the Tech Summit in China. Oliver says he can’t go to the summit, but he tells Mr. Mills about his friend Xiao, whom Oliver credits with being a big help with the invention.

And so, Xiao becomes Mr. Mills’ guest at the summit, which takes place in Beijing. The event is so over-the-top in treating Mr. Mills like a “god” that a giant projection of his face appears on the steps of the convention center where the event is held. Of course, there’s a plot twist with Mr. Mills, which is revealed in the movie’s trailer, but it won’t be discussed in this review, since we all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Will Oliver win Sophie’s heart? Will Henry help save the day? Will Lukas and Ellen fall back in love again? Do people need a dog’s brain to know the answers to these questions?

“Think Like a Dog” would have been a better movie if it weren’t so unimaginative and if it weren’t so preachy. The jokes in the movie just aren’t very funny. (There’s an over-reliance on jokes about farting, dog poop and the canine habit of dogs smelling each other’s rear ends.) There’s a lot of the movie that’s been seen and done before in other films about talking dogs or nerdy boys who are social misfits at school.

Some of the cast members stand out as being better actors than others in this movie. Bateman (as Oliver) carries the film with winning charm. Fox (as Oliver’s mother Ellen) is also quite good, and she does her best to act believable in a bland movie. Wang (as the smart-alecky Li) is a scene-stealer, just as he was in the much-raunchier 2019 comedy film “Good Boys.”

But ultimately, these slightly-above-average performances are not enough to save “Think Like a Dog” from too-corny mediocrity. The ways that problems are resolved in “Think Like a Dog” are such moldy concepts from a bygone era, that it’s the equivalent of a dog with mange that needs a good scrub-down bath of today’s reality.

Lionsgate released “Think Like a Dog” on DVD, Blu-ray, digital and VOD on June 9, 2020.

Review: ‘Trolls World Tour,’ featuring the voices of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anderson .Paak, James Corden and Kelly Clarkson

April 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) in “Trolls World Tour” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Trolls World Tour”

Directed by Walt Dohrn and David P.  Smith

Culture Representation: This animated film sequel to 2016’s “Trolls” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Latino and Asian) voicing characters based on troll dolls.

Culture Clash: The trolls live in different territories based on the music of their lifestyles, and the queen of the rock territory wants to take over everything.

Culture Audience: “Trolls World Tour” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to kids, adults who young at heart and people who like a variety of hit songs.

Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) in “Trolls World Tour” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

On Broadway, there are jukebox musicals that string together a plot in between the performance of hit songs. And now, the jukebox musical trend has reached animated films with “Trolls World Tour,” which is a showcase for some original songs but mostly retro hits from various genres of music. This sequel to 2016’s “Trolls” packs in even more stars in the voice cast than its predecessor movie. The result is an energetic and vibrant ride that is utterly predictable but should be a crowd-pleaser for its intended audience.

Even though the plot of “Trolls World Tour” is pretty simple, there are five people who are credited with writing the screenplay: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Elizabeth Tippet. The large writing team for this movie is also a reflection of the huge increase in the size of the “Trolls World” voice cast, compared to the first “Trolls” movie. Walt Dohrn, who co-directed “Trolls” with Mike Mitchell, returns as a director on “Trolls World Tour,” but this time with David P. Smith as co-director. Dohrn voices several of the supporting characters in both movies.

Viewers of “Trolls World Tour” don’t need to see the first “Trolls” movie to understand what’s going on in this sequel, but it helps if more of a backstory is needed for the two central characters in both films: Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and her best friend/love interest Bark (voiced by Justin Timberlake). In “Trolls,” Bark (who tends to be overly pessimistic) became a reluctant ally and then eventual best friend to Poppy (who tends to be overly optimistic) in the Trolls’ quest to defeat the sad and angry creatures known as Bergens, whose goal was to make everyone in the world as miserable as they are.

In “Trolls World Tour,” the chief villain is Princess Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) a rocker girl who leads the Trolls whose music of choice is hard rock/heavy metal. Ozzy Osbourne is perfectly cast for the voice of King Thrash, Barb’s father. Barb’s goal is to have rock music take over all six territories in the Troll Kingdom. Each territory represents the music that embodies the Trolls’ lifestyle in each territory.

The other five territories represent the music genres of pop, techno, country, funk and classical. In the beginning of the movie, Barb and her minions arrive in a fleet of sharks to take over the techno territory. She takes a valuable guitar string from the Techno trolls and then she and her army of rock Trolls then move on to conquer the next territory.

When news of the invasion hits the pop territory, Poppy thinks that Barb has good intentions to unite all of the Trolls. But her father King Peppy (voiced by Dohrn) reveals a secret from the Trolls’ historical past: The Trolls almost had a civil war over their different tastes in music, so the music territories were created so Trolls who liked the same genre of music could live together in harmony. Each territory was bestowed with a magical guitar string that has the power to control that territory.

Barb is on a mission to collect all six of the magical strings to put them on a guitar. Once the guitar has the six strings on it, she’ll play an “ultimate power chord” that will give her and rock music complete control over all the Troll territories. Since “Trolls World Tour” is an animated jukebox musical, Barb belts out several rock songs along the way, including Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Heart’s “Barracuda.”

“Trolls World Tour” has several jokes about clichés and criticisms that go with certain music genres. The movie pokes fun at pop for being simple, repetitive “earworm” music. Rock is parodied for attracting low-life burnouts who wear mullets or mohawks and do “devil horn” signs. Country music has a stereotype of being full of sad songs and fans who act like rednecks or country bumpkins.

Classical music is labeled as “boring.” Techno gets criticism for its artists not playing “real” instruments. And funk (whose territory is populated with African American voice actors) calls out rap and pop for over-using funk samples. The original song “It’s All Love (History of Funk)” is a clap back to all the music that lifted funk riffs to make hit songs and funk artists not being paid properly for these samples.

Not for nothing, George Clinton (co-founder of Parliament-Funkadelic, one of the most-sampled groups of all time) is cast as new Trolls character King Quincy, who rules the funk territory Vibe City with Queen Essence (voiced by Mary J. Blige). The funk royals have a son named Prince D, voiced by hip-hop star Anderson .Paak, who performs the original song “Don’t Slack” with Timberlake in the film.  And returning Trolls character Cooper (voiced by Ron Funches) from the pop territory finds out that he has a connection to the funk territory.

“Trolls World Tour” once again has Poppy convincing a reluctant and wary Branch to go with her to help stop the chief villain before it’s too late. “Trolls” characters that are also in “Trolls World Tour” are loyal Biggie (voiced by James Corden) and wisecracking Guy Diamond (voiced by Kunal Nayyar), who provide some of the comic relief in the film

But there are so many new characters in “Trolls World Tour” that the movie could feel overstuffed for people who have short attention spans and might have trouble keeping track of them all. Guy now has a son named Tiny Diamond (voiced by Kenan Thompson). Delta Dawn (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) is a sassy, big-haired redhead who is a singer and leader of the country music territory.

Also in the country music territory is Hickory (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a multitalented and brave cowboy who befriends Poppy, much to Branch’s chagrin. Branch has been trying to tell Poppy that he loves her but is afraid to do it, so he gets jealous when it looks like Hickory is winning Poppy’s admiration. Hickory is the biggest standout new character in “Trolls World Tour” since he and his “yee-haw” can-do personality get a lot of screen time.

Some other supporting characters in the movie are the bounty hunters that Barb hires to help her track down the elusive pop guitar string that Poppy has in her possession. The bounty hunters are smooth jazz musician Chaz (voiced by Jamie Dornan), a clarinet-playing Kenny G type who plays hypnotic music that gets on people’s nerves. The other bounty hunters are musical groups representing reggaeton, K-Pop and yodelers. J Balvin has a cameo as the reggaeton leader, and his song “Mi Gente” is in the movie.

There are several familiar hits that get the medley treatment in “Trolls World Tour,” including Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” has the lyrics reworked with the word “trolls” replacing the word “girls.” Dierks Bentley’s song “Leaving Lonesome Flats” (written for “Trolls World Tour”) is featured in a country music segment. And an electronic-dance music concert in the movie’s opening scene has the DJ playing Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”

“Trolls World Tour” music directors are Timberlake and Ludwig Goransson, the musician who won an Oscar and a Grammy for the “Black Panther” score, as well as Grammys for co-writing and producing Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Timberlake and Goransson co-wrote and produced the majority of the original songs in “Trolls World Tour,” such as the ballad “Perfect for Me,” “Don’t Slack” and “Just Sing (Trolls World Tour),” which is the movie’s obvious signature anthem. The music is very catchy, but won’t be as huge as Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling!,” the Oscar-nominated song from the first “Trolls” movie.

In its plot about Barb the villain trying to make all the Trolls conform to the way she wants them to be, “Trolls World Tour” has a message that people can live peacefully while respecting each other’s differences. It’s a message that comes wrapped in a lot of musical numbers and action sequences, but it’s something that audiences can take to heart. And along the way, some people might learn more about music genres that they might have previously dismissed because of certain prejudices.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation released “Trolls World Tour” for rental only on digital and VOD on April 10, 2020.

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