The 2016 film Trolls isn't flawless by any means, but it is, nonetheless, one of crucial films in the late development of DreamWorks Animation. It was the first film the studio released after a major restructuring took place that fundamentally changed its financial strategy, and while Trolls was itself largely a product of the previous order, it feels of a piece with DWA's fascinating run of movies since then: 2017's The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants and 2019's How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and Abominable are all doing different things with the animation medium, the first two in particular trying to find ways of making something unusual using the tools of computer animation that are designed to make it easier to stick to a rigid formula. Trolls is in same ways still the studio's boldest gesture in that direction: it has some of the most creative character animation of any CG-animated feature film in a quarter of a century, doing something closer to the rubber-hose and squash-and-stretch hand-drawn animation of the 1930s than the algorithmically smooth motions of most computer animation. And this was on top of some tremendously lovely texturing, in which an entire world seemed to be made out of felt and cloth and mylar and other craft goods. It's one of the most stylish, inventive, and visually fun big-studio animated movies of its decade, and that's more than enough to paper over a clichéd and formulaic, but not actively harmful screenplay.

This was all enough to give me hope that the film's unnecessary sequel, Trolls World Tour, would nevertheless be a good time in its own right. It's not. It's clichéd in different ways, and probably less obnoxious about it; but it's also a hell of a lot less interesting to look at. I hate to say it's all about the money, but World Tour cost something like $30 million less than Trolls, and you can see it show up, mostly in the rendering: the wonderful, fussy surfaces in the first movie have been smoothed over and flattened, the feeling of tactility has been wiped away. All of the sets have the tidy, slick quality of medium-budget CGI, and this comes at the cost of the toyetic charm of the original, even despite the imaginative detail that has gone into creating the much larger world of this film.

As for the playful, kinetic animation, it just doesn't even seem that they tried. World Tour was directed by Walt Dohrn, who received a co-director credit on the original film (this film was, in turn, co-directed by David P. Smith), and it would not appear from this film's approach to layout and character timing that he was particularly invested in that element of its aesthetic. The character animation here isn't defective or anything like that. It's not at all lively, either, is the problem, simply plunking along through scenes without much energy or momentum. There's no bounce, and without that bounce, the limits of the screenplay are much harder to ignore.

The story this time around is heavily invested in world-building, to an extent that it feels almost incompatible with the scenario sketched out in the first Trolls. We learn right away that the trolls of that movie - based on the faddish troll dolls that first hit big in the 1960s - are merely one tribe of six, and that each tribe is centered around its love of one of the founding genres of music: Techno, Classical, Country, Funk, Hard Rock, and our trolls, Pop. And I get it, the movie isn't actually about musicology. It's about racism, critical gatekeeping, and cultural appropriation (though it has a muddy presentation of the last of these and it has no desire to follow through on the implications of what it explicitly presents in the plot). But the text has to work before the subtext can, and the text of World Tour is reductive to the point of absurdity, while suggesting a world view that barely knows that music existed before 1980 and certainly hasn't listened to any of it.

At any rate, the queen of the Hard Rock trolls, Barb (Rachel Bloom) has decided that she's sick of living a world where non-rock music is tolerated, and so she has decided to steal the magical harp strings from the other five tribes that fuel their music, and in so doing institute a rockist hegemony. This leaves the heroes of the last film, Queen Poppy of the Pop trolls (Anna Kendrick) and her best friend Branch (Justin Timberlake), who should be a different color in this film, based on the end of the last film, but that's just the kind of film we're dealing with here, to go on a quest through the other troll kingdoms and stop Barb. The results in a lot of undernourished vocal cameos from people like Kelly Clarkson (a clear sign of the film's surface-deep understanding of music: casting Clarkson as the soulful queen of a race of country singers who have no knowledge whatsoever of pop music) and Mary J. Blige, and a lot of fragments of musical numbers: the one thing that World Tour does recreate from the first film being the frustrating way that we hear basically two bars of a cover of a famous song, and see some limited choreography to go with them.

The biggest and best thing it has to offer, beyond its clumsy and scattered but heartfelt message about diversity being good, both in the kinds of people who make up society and in personal artistic taste (though this does not prevent it from  forwarding the theme that you an like any sort of music you want, as long as you like pop), is its wide variety of environments and trolls; for reasons that have little to do with world building, but at least involve fun character design, the Techno trolls are merfolk, the Country trolls are centaurs, and the Funk trolls are weird four-legged creatures that are the most Norse-feeling creatures in the film (the Classical and Hard Rock trolls are basically the same as the Pop trolls, only the classical ones can float). The film would unquestionably benefit from rendering these different worlds with the same fussy care that the first film had, but they are at least extremely colorful and extremely different. World Tour can only achieve a kind of cheater's version of visual energy, but it does get there, and the lively brightness of the film goes down easy in the absence of anything better.

And it's not bereft of good animation. One character, a talking flute, is artificially animated at a lower frame rate, to give her a playfully mechanical feeling; the lighting throughout is generally great, especially where it shades into effects animation. But it doesn't feel like anybody was pushing themselves; it's a simple, path-of-least-resistance kids' movie. Thankfully, DreamWorks has evolved enough in the last five years that its path of least resistance in 2020 is much more accomplished and appealing than it was even as recently as the era of Mr. Peabody & Sherman and Home. But I do hope this represents a low-point for the current incarnation of the studio, and not the new normal.