I laughed, danced, sang, and kept a smile on my face for the better part of the 90-minute movie Trolls, and left the theater saying it was an animated version of Atlas Shrugged. Just kidding.
Except that later I realized that I was not kidding. Here is a film that makes the salient point: our happiness comes not from some external source, and certainly not from a powerful leader who purports to feed it to us, however much a leader claims otherwise. Happiness comes from within us. It is our choice whether or not to conjure it up.
Before you dismiss this animated creation from DreamWorks as designed for children only, consider this. Have you ever taught children? You have to know your subject really well, whatever it is. If it is math or science or grammar or history or religion, you need a high-level understanding, a complete understanding, in order to simplify in a way that is digestible for kids. That’s because kids can easily smoke out a fake. Adults are easily bamboozled by big words, credentials, and pomp, but kids will have none of it. You either make sense to them or you are toast.
This is why animated films often convey profound truth – truth that adults forget or never knew – better than any other medium. I compare Trolls with Dr. Strange, the message of which has something to do with the simultaneous existence of parallel dimensions of time, or some such, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. By comparison, the message of Trolls is searing, pointed, applicable, simple, and so true that it actually creates discomfort. This is what a movie message should be. If you can only get this from “kids’ movies,” so be it.
Happy vs. Miserable
The story is this. There was a colony of Trolls that lived in a tree, and they were the happiest people ever, dancing, singing, and hugging on the half hour. There were these other larger creatures called Bergen, who were the most miserable people ever. They were sad, grumpy, complaining, and dark. They never sang or danced. Their whole lives were drudgery.
The Bergen were convinced that they had to periodically eat Trolls in order to experience happiness. They actually believed in this cause and effect. They especially chowed down on the annual Trollstess day. One day when they attempted to trap the Trolls in their tree, the Trolls managed an escape through tunnels. They were free at last, but the Bergen remained, bitter and miserable, hoping to someday find the Trolls again.
The movie now moves 20 years in the future. The Trolls have prepared a party to celebrate 20 years of freedom and life, but they make such a racket they alerted the Bergen to their whereabouts. The Bergen creature Chef (voiced by Christine Baranski) who was once in charge of the Troll tree – but was fired for incompetence – recaptures a few of the Trolls and takes them back to the Bergen to prepare a feast. She then holds the resources and demands total power in order to bring the Bergen their only path to happiness.
So you have these pathetic, languishing, dreary creatures, all sitting around waiting to eat a Troll so they can experience happiness, ready to obey an aspiring tyrant merely because she has a few Trolls in her satchel. And you have these other happy, singing Trolls running around seeking not to be eaten and trying to rescue their brethren. That is how the core plot unfolds.
The Crabby Prepper Troll
The most interesting Troll character is named Branch Troll (voiced by Justin Timberlake), and he departs from the usual Troll model by being extremely crabby himself. He won’t sing. He won’t dance. He won’t smile. Hilariously, he is a prepper, in the model of American political culture. He has been warning about the coming Bergen attack for years, and he built a bunker with a 10 years’ food supply. He revels in the fact that he is proven right.
His very existence is proof that the personality traits of happy vs. not are not baked into our biology or identity. He is a crabby Troll! It’s a choice!
So the star of the show, Princess Poppy Troll (voiced by Anna Kendrick), the most ebullient of all the Trolls, makes it her personal project to make him happy. She finds out that he is sad because of a bad thing that happened in his past. He can’t shake it off. But inspired by the mission to save other Trolls from a terrible fate, he eventually realizes that he too can be happy with some effort. The Troll will alone can do remarkable things.
It’s not just a state of mind; happiness is a state of action and achievement too. With a mission and a new sense of personal value, he finds what which he has lost. As Ayn Rand said: “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”
But this gives Princess Poppy a fantastic idea. What if she could convince the Bergen that they do not need to eat Trolls to be happy? So she launches a plot. A servant girl is in love with the young Bergen king. The Trolls dress her up with a new hairdo and she tells the king her affections. This makes the king super happy! As Trollstess arrives and the feast is prepared, the Trolls reveal their amazing insight that anyone can be happy if only he or she wills it. No need for murder and slaughter and other violence against innocent people!
The Bergen are convinced and (not to give a spoiler … but) everyone lives happily ever after.
Silly story, right? Not so much. How much of our lives are spent waiting for some external thing to make make us happy? Plenty. Conversely, we also let our personal happiness be drained from us because of some external experience. We allow ourselves to be emotionally buffeted by circumstances outside our control. If so, we’ve outsourced a huge part of lives, which means we are foregoing the opportunity to take charge of ourselves and actually change not only our own lives but the world around us. We disempower ourselves through our own self-imposed state of mind.
This is particularly true when it comes to politics. Think about the last year. We want fairness, but we are told that only this certain politician can give it to us. We want greatness, but we are told only that politician can deliver. We want healthcare, security, community, and a sense of the worth of our own identity, but we are told (and we believe) that this can only happen when some external political entity acts to bring it to us. But let us recall: politicians do not have resources and power of their own; everything they do comes at someone else’s expense.
This is no different from the cruel and violent Bergen who rounded up Trolls and withheld them from people as blackmail so they could become happy via her actions. What the Trolls teach is that this is an illusion. No external power is necessary. We can find it within ourselves to become what we want to become. We can do this as individuals, but we can also act as a community to achieve the same result. And we can do this without resorting to violence, destruction, bloodshed, any force. With peace and personal contentment, we can all prosper.
You tell me: is this not a lesson that adults could learn?
Maybe this election season could have used a Princess Poppy Troll to demonstrate this to the American people via fantastic songs, dancing, and inspirational talks. “You want greatness? Be great! You want fairness? Be fair! You want safety? Be safe!” And so on. If the results were half as entertaining as the movie Trolls, it would still have been vastly better than the election season we just left behind.
So, no, it’s not Atlas Shrugged in cartoons. But something tells me that Ayn herself would have plenty to like.