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Interview: Director Walt Dohrn and Co-Director Tim Heitz Talk ‘Trolls Band Together’ and the Influences Behind the Animated Sequel

January 25, 2024Ben MK

2023 may go down as the year Barbie conquered the box office, but when it comes to toys-turned-movie-franchises, even Greta Gerwig's feminist-themed comedy masterpiece owes a debt of gratitude to Dreamworks Animation's Trolls series. From 2016's Trolls to its 2020 sequel, Trolls World Tour, the fan-favorite animated adventures of Trolls Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake) have captured the imaginations of moviegoers both young and young-at-heart. And with the franchise's third and latest installment, Trolls Band Together, director Walt Dohrn and co-director Tim Heitz are bringing everyone's favorite childhood toys back to life, as Poppy and Branch embark on their biggest, most colorful adventure yet.

I caught up with Walt Dohrn and Tim Heitz to chat about Trolls Band Together and the inspirations behind the animated sequel, as well as to find out what the Trolls franchise means to them.

Walt, you've been with the Trolls franchise since the first film. What has been your favorite Trolls moment among all three movies?

Dohrn: It's so hard to choose. I think one particular thing I'm really proud of is on this last film, this act three chase we did — it's so bonkers and bigger than anything we've ever achieved before. I never really got to help choreograph an action/musical/comedy thing before. [laughs] It's so massive. It's bigger than any of us knew we could accomplish, so I really like that bit.

Trolls Band Together is definitely the most ambitious Trolls movie so far. How did the idea for this sequel come about?

Dohrn: It's rooted back in [the first] Trolls, with our producer Gina Shay. She had this idea that we were gonna tell Branch's backstory, that we were gonna tell his family tree story, and his origin of how he became who he was. So that was the root of it. And as soon as we were told we were gonna be able to make another chapter, we said, "Oh, let's tap into that." And that's what became "Branch has brothers, and they were in a band, it could be a boy band..." It started building on itself from there.

Heitz: Yeah, and another big component for this particular story coming together was being quarantined with our families in COVID, whoever we were with during those times. The chance to get to tell a family dynamic story and to talk about the ups and the downs and the way that different family members perceive each other, and how you're kind of seen as one thing even though you might be another thing, it all sounded pretty rich to us and felt very organic to these characters, and it gave us a fun journey to take them on. And to send Poppy on that journey as well was really fun. She realizes Branch has these brothers and she sees it as this opportunity for everything to be perfect again between them, and then she realizes she has a sister too. And coming to find out they don't see things exactly the same way either, it's a good journey for everybody.

Speaking of family, that has always been an important theme of the Trolls series. In what ways did your own families inspire what we see on screen in this film?

Dohrn: I have three kids of my own, so you really take those experiences and try to flop it. I think the pink eye gag [in the film] is a good example. And, of course, it was awful when we had to research the pink eye, but that notion of finding the universal in the specific — we really want these movies to connect with a lot of people, so, again, whether you’ve had a kid with pink eye or not, you know what that's like dealing with that. Or if you're a kid yourself. So, yeah, we definitely draw inspiration from our kids and our families.

Heitz: Yeah, and the sibling thing too. Walt and I talk about that a lot. We have siblings — or have had siblings, I guess — that we've had different relationships with and different dynamics with, and it's such a relatable part of the human experience, the sort of ups and downs of that. And what it looks like when you go through something but also are able to come out stronger together on the other side. It feels very relatable.

Was it hard to convince *NSYNC to reunite for Trolls Band Together? How did you pitch the idea to Justin and the other band members?

Dohrn: It was actually Justin's idea. We were pretty much a year and a half, two years into the movie, so it was already part of the movie — this idea of a boy band and Branch's history with it, and Justin bringing his own experience into that character, into the narrative in a fun and playful way. And he came to us, he called our producer Gina Shay and said he had this song brewing, and he goes, "What if I got the guys back together with the song?" That's where it started.

Heitz: Yep, that's right. And then, on top of that, he was like, "Maybe we could get them to actually have cameos and to have a story in the movie." So we got to collaborate with him and go back and forth a little bit on how we could give them a special moment within the story we were telling, and hopefully it feels very organic and surprising. I think it came together nicely, and they were all so much fun to work with. They were so enthusiastic and collaborative, and they got to design their own characters, choose their outfits and their hairstyles. So they were super involved in that process. Just a great group of guys to work with. It was a lot of fun.

The animation style also ventures into much different territory than the previous two movies, especially with the stop-motion animation look of Velvet and Veneer and the 2D Rhonda sequences, which are very reminiscent of '70s animated films like Heavy Metal and Fritz the Cat. What were some of the movies, comics, etc. that influenced the look of this installment?

Dohrn: Like you said, there's a lot of those old '70s — or '60s, even — psychedelic movies. Like Yellow Submarine was a big movie growing up for me. Even Fantasia's very psychedelic, the way it uses music and imagery. So those went into it. And Velvet and Veneer, that's a good point too. We were trying to find a look for them that was doll-like, so we used these bendy dolls, but we also blend it in with Betty Boop and a 1920s style of rubber hose animation. It really is a movie that celebrates all kinds of animation styles and the history of animation.

Heitz: Yeah, that's the thing. At the end of the day, we're all just such animation fans. The more we can pay homage to and to draw from and to take influence from, and, hopefully, put it through our own lens in a way that makes it very specific to Trolls — I think we're just so excited to play in that playground.

Last but not least, what do you want viewers to take away from Trolls Band Together?

Dohrn: The takeaway we talk about a lot is this feeling of joyfulness — really going to the movie, having a good time, and feeling better than you did when you came in to watch the movie. Like it adds a little bit of pep to your step, a little warmth to your heart. You've laughed, you've cried a little bit. So really, joyfulness.

Trolls Band Together is available now on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital.

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