It’s April 10, 2020. Three months ago, my wife gave birth to our second child. During the many hours we spent in the hospital, waiting for her to be induced to deliver,Iwe watched a lot of TV without really paying attention. It was background noise amidst the sounds of sterile medical equipment, because we allowed ourselves to turn off our brains and refocus on the frivolous at a time when we had other things to think about.
Now, I’m sitting in the living room with my 3-month-old infant. He’s sleeping in my arms. The recliner I’m sitting in faces the front door of our house, where the sun begins to peek through the peephole, rising over the horizon on this hazy Friday morning. My 5-year old son dashes down the stairs in breathless anticipation, as if it’s Christmas morning and he can’t wait to tear into the wrapping paper separating him from a slew of presents.
My son’s been stuck at home for over a month, because schools in our state have been closed that long. I’ve been working remotely for four weeks. It’s not Christmas morning. It’s the day when Trolls World Tour is available to rent for a 48-hour period digitally.
In the span of 48 hours, my son watched Trolls World Tour five times. If you have seen Trolls World Tour, as I have, you know this is not a point of pride. This is what happens when you’re sensible enough to quarantine yourself and your family (and when you’re privileged enough to do so because of your work situation). You don’t pick and choose a lot of battles over what’s on the TV, and if you do pick and choose battles, you need to be very careful about which hills you’re willing to die on. I had to watch Trolls World Tour once, so I could review it. I knew my son would want to watch it multiple times, specifically because my wife and I went out of our way to warn him that we would rent the film once, and no more. A few weeks later, even after seeing Trolls World Tour more times than any person should, I can barely remember it, which is a small mercy.
Under normal circumstances, my son would have seen Trolls World Tour once in theaters—maybe twice if he had behaved well enough throughout April—and then waited to see it arrive on our Apple TV in a few months’ time as an option to rent or buy. In these extraordinary times, four weeks after I began self-quarantining against the fearful prospect of contracting a deadly virus in a country whose leader is cheerfully unwilling to acknowledge its impact, the arrival of dreck like Trolls World Tour is something of a balm to parents such as myself because at least it is something new. The theater exhibitors of America clearly disagree, based on the ridiculous war of words going on between them and Universal Pictures, because the NBCUniversal conglomerate displayed the sheer audacity to presume that theatergoing won’t be happening again for a while on a wide scale.
Yet while Trolls World Tour is new, and I was glad to allow my son a different option from the rest of the family entertainment he’d been selecting, that only warmed my heart slightly towards the film. My review was negative—when submitting it to Rotten Tomatoes, I categorized it as “rotten,” though I’m willing to acknowledge that Trolls World Tour is forgettable where its predecessor is actively obnoxious and vile. (Maybe the third one will achieve a level of tolerability the first two haven’t.)
It would be easy for me to let a film like Trolls World Tour wash over me like waves in the ocean. My wife and I both work full-time, and have been doing so in our home for weeks, and we’ve also been doing our best at home-schooling a kindergartener in the middle of that. No matter what theater exhibitors may say, or how loudly they may cry, I’m glad for studios like Universal releasing films on demand. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go.
There’s an adage my critical colleague Scott Renshaw likes to trot out: two things in seeming opposition to each other can both be true. So, for example, it is true that Trolls World Tour arriving on demand in a pandemic is a gift to parents. And it can also be true that the film’s quality is not wedded to its unique arrival, and that thinking so is perfectly reasonable. Family entertainment can easily fall into the same bucket as supposedly high-octane action movies, where defenders will tell you that audiences should turn off their brains, leave their brains at the door, or just do something with their brains aside from think about what’s on screen.
It would be easy to give Trolls World Tour a pass, let alone other family entertainment. In this extremely strange, horrific, and baffling situation, Trolls World Tour was the first major new release arriving in the United States in a month, and the last major family film before that was Onward. (While I was mixed on that Pixar film, which is of course streaming on Disney+, it’s vastly better than Trolls World Tour.) Being a parent—or, perhaps, being a certain type of parent—means that if you’re stuck inside your house for more than a month with few options, you accept that you’ll put on TV sometimes. And whatever you watch will be the same as it was yesterday, and what it will be tomorrow.
But just because Trolls World Tour is there doesn’t mean it’s anything more than a drop of water in a vast desert of content. If anything, this quarantine has hardened my heart towards a lot of modern animated fare. On one hand, yes, I’m glad to watch a movie with my son, and I’m not so gruff a parent as to either force him to watch what I want him to watch or refuse to put on what he wants. (He’s a 5-year old, so forcing him to do much of anything is often a fool’s errand.) But I try to be as active a viewer as possible when he chooses a movie like Trolls World Tour, or Shrek, or Shark Tale, or the recent animated version of The Addams Family. I also try to guide him to more tolerable options than those, but…well, when you’re 5, your tastes aren’t superb.
My son’s tastes have never been perfect, but they were surprisingly more in line with my own—at least in terms of family fare—when he was younger. I still have memories of watching the 2016 Disney film Zootopia all the time for roughly three months. As a 2-year old, his preferences were simple and could be distilled into one word: “Again.” So we watched the story of a bunny cop and a fox con-artist again and again and again and again. The good news is that Zootopia is beautifully animated, fast-paced, and pretty clever. But on the 50th viewing, I started to feel like Will Smith in I Am Legend, robotically quoting a film I’d seen so many times I could see it in my sleep.
Another such title was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Considering its premise and generally eerie air, I wasn’t going to force our son to watch such a film, especially at age 2. But he liked the pictures and music enough that he couldn’t get enough of it. Until, one day, he had enough of it. Roughly 18 months ago, the prospect of watching the film became a true specter of terror. Listening to the music? Fine. Watching YouTube videos about Jack Skellington toys? Cool. But even mentioning the idea of watching the 1993 stop-motion film sent him into paroxysms of terror.
Until May 2020, when he’d gotten his nerves up enough to ask to watch the song sequences on YouTube. If you haven’t seen The Nightmare Before Christmas lately, I’ll remind you that the 75-minute film has 11 song sequences. (In a different world, I’d wonder why this never got turned into a Broadway musical.) My wife and I were able to encourage him to move on beyond just the clips on YouTube, which comprised a good 40 minutes. So now, as I type this paragraph, he’s watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on Disney+. For the second time today. Watching the same thing over and over again isn’t always charming, but God, I’m so happy to have something on my TV that’s gorgeously designed, with good music, and a proud deficit of lazy jokes.
When you’re an adult, it’s easy to have one of two reactions with most family films: you either begrudgingly smile at pop-culture references that are meant to humor you as you sit through an animated film you might otherwise avoid, or you get angry at such lazy attempts at coddling parents. Take Trolls World Tour (please.). It’s got some decent songs, in part because the cast is full of musical ringers such as Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, and Kelly Clarkson. And hell, my kid liked it so much that he watched it five times in 48 hours. Shouldn’t that be good enough?
It would be so easy to fall back on that last question, especially during a period when little new content exists and most families like mine might be watching the same things over and over again. If you don’t like a film such as Trolls World Tour to start, you might fall under the sway of a pop-culture-style Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe on that fifth viewing, the pop-culture references masquerading as humor would go down smoother. Maybe on that fifth viewing, the presence of Ozzy Osbourne as the doddering King of the Hard Rock Trolls—because, you see, there are six groups of Trolls and they’re all defined by different genres of music, and listen, I don’t want to go into details here so let’s move on—is a fun gag instead of a painfully dated reference that would have felt painfully dated a decade ago. Maybe your brain could turn itself off.
That wasn’t the case for me. Each time I heard the voice of James Corden sing part of the Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out?” a tiny part of my soul died. In that moment, which I saw often enough the weekend of the film’s arrival that I could’ve sung along in the correct key, I envied my son. A tiny part of my soul died for reasons he can’t grasp. To him, James Corden isn’t an obnoxious and obsequious talk-show host who is weirdly omnipresent in new animated movies. He isn’t anything other than the voice of Biggie Troll (a name that I had to look up online in the process of writing this essay even though I saw this movie five times in 48 hours). And “Who Let The Dogs Out?” isn’t a musical nadir of the 1990s, it’s just some song.
I do not have the luxury of leaving my brain at the proverbial door, or at least I choose not to have that luxury. There are worse films my son could watch than Trolls World Tour, many of them targeted at families. (The aforementioned Shrek, arguably one of the most influential mainstream films of the 21st century, is one such film. The inaugural Best Animated Feature Oscar winner is perhaps the laziest, most mean-spirited, and smug film to win the award.) But I keep thinking about leaving your brain at the door, the adage meant as a counter to criticism of popular entertainment that promotes the lowest form of content possible. I probably shouldn’t think too much about the internal logic of films like Trolls World Tour—for example, if the world of this film is inhabited solely by Troll dolls, how do they know about human music, from classical compositions to horrendous pop songs like, y’know, “Who Let The Dogs Out?” I should stop thinking about the movie, period. Or, if I fail to leave my brain at the door, maybe I should just be happy that my son is entertained.
And it’s true enough, but only to a point. It can be challenging to convince a 5-year old not to watch certain animated films. So I haven’t fought my son when he’s asked to watch movies like Shrek and Shark Tale. But films like Shrek and Shark Tale aren’t really for little kids, in spite of the loud noises, gross humor, and colorful characters. These are films squarely focused on entertaining older audiences and anyone with a passing inside-baseball awareness of the media and entertainment industry. (Do you remember how Martin Scorsese voiced a blowfish in Shark Tale? Do you remember how one of his lines of dialogue was “My brotha, my playa, my shark-slaya?” I do, and I would love to know how the conversation went when Jeffrey Katzenberg convinced Scorsese to take this role.)
As a critic, I get my hackles up when I see someone dismissively say, “Well, who cares, just shut your brain off” regarding some piece of pop-culture nonsense. The reason is twofold: first, it presumes that a movie simply existing makes it immune to criticism, and second, it presumes that there are no other options available. When my son shifts his interest to something from Disney, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll choose something I tolerate, let alone love. (The night before I wrote this paragraph, he asked to watch the 1973 animated version of Robin Hood, which I find lazy and unfunny. I realize there’s a large swath of the internet that would disagree with me.)
While there’s not a lot of new material being made, and what new material is being made is leaning hard into the pandemic (such as a Sesame Street special episode where Elmo calls some friends, both Muppety and guest-star humans), there’s plenty of older options available. Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming channels have plenty of TV shows and films that can buck the family-focused trend of having to leave your brain at the door.
But you know that already. We’re two months into quarantining—depending on what you do and where you live—and you’re probably up to your ears in recommendations about what to stream and where to stream it. (My son’s latest obsession is the Netflix animated film The Willoughbys, which I like well enough, but I wonder if I’m also falling slightly prey to the pop-culture Stockholm Syndrome.) I expect to be able to encourage my son to try new things, but it’s a slow process. For now, I’m trying to get him to focus on the next thing. The good news is that we’ve left the world of Queen Poppy and the Pop Trolls, but I’m still waiting for us to arrive somewhere more tolerable..
I’m typing these words at the end of my seventh week of quarantining. May has begun. Living in Arizona means that the temperatures are now topping 100 degrees daily. I’m trying to placate my son as he grouses about the lack of things like Trolls World Tour. My wife does the same, and usually is able to accomplish it through creating DIY art projects with movie characters. I do it through reading stories, and recommending titles on the TV. But our son’s choices often win out.
That’s why now, I’m preparing myself for May 15. That’s when my son will no doubt run downstairs in a headlong rush, once again acting like there’s a present to open. And in a way, there will be. Another new animated film, Scoob!, will be released digitally that day by a different major studio. This time, we can purchase it. So he may watch the film five times, but there won’t be any rush for him to do so. I’ll take the small victories where I can get them. That’s as much as I’m willing to do when it comes to leaving my brain at the door.