Trolls directors Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell on the power of happiness

Anna Kendrick's Poppy and Justin Timberlake's Branch in the brilliant Trolls
Anna Kendrick’s Poppy and Justin Timberlake’s Branch in the unashamedly happy Trolls

When Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell started work on Trolls, the latest Dreamworks animated adventure, they envisioned a film all ages could enjoy.

They had a great story — the good natured Trolls are under attack by the Bergens, the unhappy monsters who believe that eating Trolls will make them happy, if only for a short time.

The Trolls must run for their lives.

Filmmakers Dohrn and Mitchell knew they wanted their leader to be heroic and a woman, so they created Poppy who is bold, positive and unfettered by gender or body issues.

Monsters and Critics spoke with Dohrn and Mitchell in Toronto.

Monsters & Critics: Tell us about Poppy!

Mike Mitchell: We wanted to create a character that broke the mold of these typical animated princesses that have the little bitty waist and their little tiny feet and their big eyes.

We wanted to keep this kind of ugly, cute, stumpy, hyperactive…

Walt Dohrn: We wanted round shapes.

Monsters & Critics: Flat feet.

MM: Flat feet, bare feet. They shouldn’t have to wear these uncomfortable princess shoes.

WD: Her teeth aren’t perfect. It’s kind of how we really are, you know? And I think it was really empowering the audience to watch that.

MM: Yeah, we noticed that definitely little girls are noticing that Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is way more into being an amazing leader than obsessing about her looks, you know?

M&C: She’s cute. And her spirit, you know. I’m so glad that you made a girl, female, woman — I don’t know what you call her.

MM: She’s a woman.

WD: She’s about 20, yeah. You have to think everything through in these characters.

That’s what really important about creating these characters, is that they’re dimensional and they’re real to us.

In fact, we worked on the Shrek movie and we’re always giving the example that in the last Shrek film, Shrek and Fiona were having marital problems. So, we hired a real marriage counselor to talk about the problems they were having.

MM: Yeah. And for this film, we wanted to make it about happiness because I honestly think the news is so scary, not just for kids, but for adults and the internet itself is very judgmental and negative.

WD: The world is a difficult and dark place.

M&C: Especially now.

MM: Especially now, it’s good timing. So when Walt and I decided to make a film, we wanted it to be about happiness. I started to look at a bunch of happiness TED Talks.

WD: There’s a great Harvard study. It’s been going on for like four decades and they talk about happiness and the source of happiness.

So we really dug in to the research and really wanted to make a film that got people talking about where does happiness come from.

MM: Yeah, and we knew that the film would be funny and irreverent and the music psychedelic and trippy and whatever.

But at the end of the day, I think all of our discussions we had early on were like, maybe we can get people considering happiness and realizing the power of an optimistic attitude, not just missing it.

It seems like, lately, people are a little dismissive. If you’re happy, it seems like nothing that anyone’s interested in. So this at least creates a conversation about why it isn’t it cool to be super happy in our culture.

WD: We learned through this film that the optimism in the face of adversity is really practical. Poppy, for example, says: “I believe my friends are alive and I’m going to go save them,” and that’s optimism totally.

Because what happens is they actually save them. It works. If it was up to Branch (Justin Timberlake), he is a pessimist. He is like: “They’re dead, they’re gone, they’re already eaten,” and so they wouldn’t have been saved.

MM: Remember early on, I was like, there’s no way we could pull off this full fuzzy look for the Bergens. We can’t do it.

And you said, “We can do it!” And Kendal, our production designer said, “We can do it.” That’s a positive attitude. You guys did it.

We pulled off this beautiful look in the film and I was like, “I’m not so sure, guys. This is going to be amazing, but I don’t know.”

Two of the Bergens from Trolls — Prince Gristle and Bridget
Two of the Bergens from Trolls — Prince Gristle and Bridget

M&C: All right, now the Bergens — they have to be a source of threat and they have to fearsome. But you didn’t make them the way some filmmakers make the enemy horrifying.

MM: They are funny, aren’t they?

M&C: They’re cute! 

MM: I mean, they’re scary but they’re cute, too.

WD: Their felted skin was part of that.

M&C: I thought that was quite attractive. But they’re just people, you know?

WD: And we always talk about how your villain needs to be empathetic. We understand that they want what we want. They want happiness. They’re going about it the wrong way.

MM: Yeah. Isn’t that what everyone wants, like you want to be happy, you want to be loved? That adorable character played by Zooey Deschanel, Bridget, Walt and I just love. It’s like, wow, that’s one little monster that really has feelings.

WD: I love the idea of unrequited love. It’s such a boyish thing. I mean, I think it’s universal.

M&C: I think what sold me before I even saw the picture was the trailer. Branch tells Poppy to leave him alone, he likes the sound of silence, and she whips out a guitar and sings Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence.

MM: By the way, Simon and Garfunkel are amazing to begin with. That song has stood the test of time but it’s also — what we tried to do with all of our music, we try to make sure that the storytelling didn’t stop for a musical moment.

We wanted the song to continue telling the story that we’re telling and that song has just turned out to be perfect for Poppy.

How do you shut someone up who’s arguing with you through a song? And it does it in such a nice simple way, like she wins the argument.

M&C: You have an incredible cast of characters, really hot and happening people, very current. How did you pitch them? (Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Gwen Stefani, Russell Brand, James Corden, John Cleese, Quvenzhané Wallis)

MM: Well, we had some of the music gathered, we had a bunch of imagery, we had some rough sequences put together.

WD: And we pitched them the characters on a wall. Here’s your character and they got really excited. In fact, with Justin, we said: “Hey, we want you to play this character as Branch and this is who he is.”

He goes: “Yes, but I could also help you with your music.” That was his pitch.

MM: He had that idea and we said, “Yes, thank you, please,” because it’s hard to find a song that continues the storytelling and we had an issue at the end of the movie where we’re like, man, this song has to be perfect.

Justin said: “I’ll write it for you! I’ll write the song. I’m your music producer, so I’ll just write the song.”

And then he said: “I’ll make it a hit song as well,” and I laughed because I thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking. It’s a hit song. That song, Can’t Stop the Feeling, he made it for our film. Can you believe it?

WD: So yeah, this movie, speaking of a positive attitude, it really created like this positivity that kept going.

MM: Totally! Every cast member, starting with Anna, our first person; Justin, who wanted to do more; James Corden, hysterical, Zooey Deschanel who can sing amazingly…

WD: Well, they had such a good time and the entire crew, hundreds of artists and technicians who make these films. They all had such an amazing time, but I think that joy you experience gets on to the screen itself.

MM: At the end of this, you know, we just finished and everyone, it’s like the end of camp. Everyone is hugging and crying with each other.

M&C: So, you’re writing for kids but you’re also writing for everybody else. Do you write with two different mindsets? How does that work?

MM: No. Walt and I write for each other. We try to make each other laugh and because we’re kind of kids.

WD: And we’re never making movies for kids. I mean, we’re part of the audience. We make movies for everyone.

That’s our favorite challenge. And that’s great when you can connect to such a wide audience, I think is our favorite.

So, we’re never thinking, oh, this is for kids. In fact, it was one of the struggles. We want to make sure that everybody comes to this, that it’s not too young.

MM: Well, I’d say that’s kind of an issue with a lot of animated films, like all animated films, right away, everyone is like, “Well, it’s a kid’s film,” and I don’t know if you’ve noticed these animated films have amazing messages.

WD: Yeah, incredible themes.

MM: And I think a lot of adults are starting to go, “You know, there’s something to this.” I mean, there’s a reason that these animated films can go up against these gigantic, other blockbusters, like they’re going up against Star Wars and Marvel films because they have a message. They have something to say.

WD: They ask big questions.

MM: They tap into something that I think isn’t just for kids.

WD: And they’re a lot of fun.

Trolls is in theaters now!

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