It would seem the key to happiness this November is sunshine in your pocket, good soul in your feet, and a ticket to see Trolls.
The directors of DreamWorks’ and 20th Century Fox’s new animated feature want one thing from you and one thing only: For you to just be happy. Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn are the directors behind the film loosely inspired by the 20th century dolls of the same name (emphasis on ‘loosely’); the pair came to their bright idea of Trolls after facing endless amounts of negativity and fear in the news and the world at large.
“We said, the world itself is so full of social unrest and so much violence, so let’s make something with some happy in it,” says Dohrn, a Shrek franchise alum who co-directs alongside principal helmer Mitchell (Shrek Forever After, Sky High).
As Trolls prepares to delight little and big crowds this weekend, EW sat down with the directing duo to inquire about how plastic dolls, Hiyao Miyazaki, and Justin Timberlake all contributed to the happiest movie this year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you even do when a studio approaches you and says, “Hey guys, do you remember Trolls?”
WALT DOHRN: Well first you say, yes, we remember Trolls. We played with them on these shag carpets in the ‘70s.
MIKE MITCHELL: We both grew up in the ‘70s. But the next thing that you say is, ‘Yeah, and we have a way to make this into something.’ Because the thing is, there is no history to these.
DOHRN: They didn’t really have anything. Essentially it was a blank slate and an opportunity for us to create a whole unique world that you’ve never seen before. No characters, no mythology. There was nothing attached to it. The original Troll doll that we’re talking about was Thomas Dam.
MITCHELL: This old wood carver from Denmark. His daughter was scared of trolls, which are typically known as baby-snatching evil creatures that live under bridges. So because his daughter was scared, he carved this happy troll with puffy hair—
DOHRN: And little clothes and arms outstretched and that kind of cute-ugly face, and that was the origin. There wasn’t any story more than that.
MITCHELL: All we inherited was the ugly-cute stubby little body, and definitely the hair, which we held on to. But other than that, there was nothing else! Creatively, it was really exciting for us.
You probably played around with several ideas — the trolls as toys, the trolls living in a world with humans. What else did you spitball?
MITCHELL: We launched into the world we created right off, because we didn’t want to make them as toys because we didn’t want to make a toy commercial. I like to think that we’re not commercial filmmakers but just filmmakers, and storytellers, and so what Walt and I like are fairy tales. We love fairy tales and we’re really inspired by the Japanese animated films by Miyazaki. He did Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. And Walt and I have friends that work on the TV show Adventure Time, and so we thought, let’s take those two things that are really inspiring to us and show our love of those two things in a gigantic CGI DreamWorks film. How do we westernize Miyazaki and include those weird, strange creatures but really create our own world?
DOHRN: And we didn’t want to make a film that took place in the real world. What’s so great about animation is you can transport the audience to a place they’ve never been to before, so that was the source of our first inspiration.
Which moment in the film would you say is the most Miyazaki?
MITCHELL: The sequence of “Get Back Up Again.” It’s the song that Anna Kendrick sings as she’s traveling and we go, in a matter of three minutes, to 27 locations, which is not normal for a movie.
DOHRN: And we meet all these kind of supernatural, surreal creatures. All the way up through “Sound of Silence.” The whole troll forest had that Miyazaki spirit, I think.
Your art department has achieved some really tremendous effects in terms of hand-crafted texturing here. When did that lightbulb go off as something you wanted to do?
DOHRN: I have to credit Kendal Cronkhite for getting us there. She’s our production designer and she’s amazing. But it started from the fact that the technology for these CGI films has gotten so, so sophisticated. Skin textures can look so real that you could swear it’s human skin up on the screen. So we wanted to go the other way: Our trolls themselves are like gummy bears locked in velvet, and the world, instead of being hyper-real, we wanted to use natural fibers.
MITCHELL: We really wanted this kind of tactile experience for the audience where they felt like they could reach in and want to touch it. We also really wanted a hand-crafted feel to the world. Yes, we use digital technology to create that world, but we just wanted to try to return to the basics. Everything feels like an artist made it.
Most of the trolls look relatively similar, but there are some unique shapes and colors. Is there a greater assortment of troll species and races out there?
DOHRN: We imagined that there is a whole universe of trolls. For this story, we happen to just tap into this one tribe, but we imagined the universe is so vast, much like our own world, there are many facets to the kind of trolls that exist.
MITCHELL: To be fair, there’s only one giraffe troll in the mix, and that came from Walt and I, early on, when we were constructing the story, we visited a lot of strange, wonderful collectors of troll dolls, and in every collection for some reason there’s this funky giraffe with a troll head and this, like, ‘70s hat on. That’s how Ron Funches’ character came into it.
That answers my next question, which is, what the hell is Cooper?
MITCHELL: Maybe there’s a whole tribe of Coopers out there!
Beyond aesthetics and world-building, what were some of your benchmark story epiphanies?
MITCHELL: One of the things that happened early on is we knew that we wanted to do a needle-drop musical.
DOHRN: A jukebox musical with classic songs.
MITCHELL: And we knew that we wanted to make it really irreverent and funny and not just for kids. We wanted it for adults. Early on, we decided on something and it was kind of the moment when we got really excited. All the media out there is so dark and scary. Anything on the news, not just for kids but for adults, is terrifying, and the internet is such a judgmental, negative space. And that sounds kind of strange — how do we make a film about happiness? But I started to listen to TED Talks about happiness.
DOHRN: And this great Harvard study that’s been going on now for like four decades, where they really talk about the source of it.
MITCHELL: So Walt and I came up with the idea that we honestly think that everyone’s born with this innate happiness inside them. After debating for a while, we’re like, let’s make our movie about that. That’s what it is, and it was really an inspiration for us. This is exactly the time when the world needs this.
DOHRN: And once we clued into that, it really informed how we wrote the scenes and how we went about it.
MITCHELL: We used happiness to design the characters. The colors are informed by that, the music is certainly informed by that. That was the lynchpin that got us going.
Was Poppy ever too happy?
DOHRN: Especially in the beginning. We realized, we wanted her to be naïve but this level of insane naïvete and optimism wasn’t that relatable to most people.
MITCHELL: It really helped that Anna Kendrick was our first actress that we got on board very early on. She helped us craft Poppy. Anna didn’t want her to be your typical animated princess, and Anna brought this edge to her. It was really fun to work with Anna and come up with this intelligence that Poppy has. Even though she’s still super naïve, it becomes her superpower.
Why did you opt for classic music instead of making it a full, traditional new musical?
MITCHELL: It seems like we’ve seen that a million times in animated films, and specifically with Pasek and Paul’s song “Get Back Up Again,” we wanted to skewer the animated musical that we’ve seen many, many times and kind of have more fun with it. Also, it’s how people listen to music — they mix it up on their phones, they hit all different eras.
DOHRN: What’s really great is once we brought Justin into the process, he said, “Hey, I can make some music for you.” That was incredible because we got to some story points where we just couldn’t find the right song. That’s why Justin made “Can’t Stop the Feeling” for us. He crafted that after we talked about it for a long time, and then he went out and did it, and lo and behold, he made it a hit song, which I honestly can’t believe to this day.
And you originally sought him out just to be a voice actor, right?
DOHRN: We just wanted Justin as a voice because he’s a great actor and he’s got an excellent sense of humor, and he’s so funny on Saturday Night Live. So we just went to him as a voice actor, but as we were pitching to him, he was listening to the music we had — we already had Earth, Wind & Fire and Cyndi Lauper — and then he pitched us. He was like, “Guys, I want to do this but I also want to help you do the music. This is so awesome.” And it was really fortunate because I don’t know if we could have done it without him, without that song that he made for us, and also, he went back and helped us bring a cohesiveness to all the songs. He kind of Troll-ified every song.
There’s already talk of life for trolls after this film. What’s on the horizon for you guys?
MITCHELL: Walt and I have worked on so many franchises like Shrek and SpongeBob and Chipmunks, and we just want to go on and keep creating more. We loved the blank slate of just creating a world from scratch, and we want to just keep doing that.
Trolls is now in theaters.