My 2 sons and I saw the movie Trolls Tuesday morning at the local theater. Now, I recognize that Trolls is not the most masculine movie – sort of makes Frozen look like Raging Bull – but there we were, just 3 guys deep in the story of Princess Polly and Justin Timberlake. JT says in the movie that his grandma says he has the voice of an angel and as it turns out, she was fantastically right. In the emotional climax, he sings the awesome Cyndi Lauper ballad True Colors. My heart stopped and I wept – not because I cry at everything, I do, but this time it was because that was the ONLY response. It was an uplifting fairy tale of the power of happiness and friendship full of great (if a bit inconsequential) songs and pastel colors.

As we walked out of the darkness, we agreed. It was fine.

Now, to discuss Trolls is to actually discuss Toy Story. Not 4, which is in theaters now, but the first time we saw Woody and Buzz, when the landscape shifted and Trolls would never be good enough again.

Before 1995, kids movies were paper thin, superficial, helpless princesses and as subtle and nuanced as a falling anvil. The parents took their children and waited for the end credits to roll. That is, until Pixar introduced us to full, complex characters who had journeys that mirrored our own. Since then, instead of pandering to children with parents held hostage, our minds and hearts are now engaged the same way live-action films could, but rarely do. Think about the first 15 minutes of Up, Bing Bong and Sadness in Inside Out, and every second of Wall-E. They embrace our souls as we are immersed into computer-generated worlds that are more authentic, more true, than photographs of our own.

Trolls, pre-1995, is pretty great. Now it’s simply ok. Fine. We may sing the songs again (except for that steaming piece of garbage, “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” That one will not be welcome in my house) but we won’t remember the names or the plot. It’s just not good enough anymore.

An assignment in a college 20th Century world class required us to write some sort of essay. I don’t remember what the actual topic was because I didn’t follow the directions at all. I wrote my own paper on, I think, a talk given by Henry Rollins. As the professor, John Synodinos (a beautiful man who was perfectly suited to be an educator), passed our graded papers back to us, he held mine up and said, “This one,” and paused. I expected to be eviscerated for my rebellion, but he lit up and said, “His name is Chad Slabach, remember that name. He is a writer.”

I will never forget that day, that feeling. It was the first time I was actually seen in school. It was a fresh word, spoken to a young man full of “potential” (is there a more hurtful label??) who didn’t “apply” himself. I was never good enough of what everyone wanted me to be, always disappointing. I was nice. Fine.

John Synodinos held my fractured psyche in his hands and spoke a different truth. With his acceptance and affirmation, opened my eyes, and the lies I believed about myself would never be good enough anymore. My life was fundamentally changed.

Could it be that I was more than just fine? Maybe I needed less acquiescence and more expectation. Less shuffling and more soaring.

There are moments where the walls we’ve constructed that limit us are exposed and we start to believe that what we’ve settled for is beneath us, right? It’s not like we cross a threshold and crawl out of a cocoon completely new, the old habits die hard, never quietly. Trolls still gets green-lit and a gigantic budget, but we begin to see that those old clothes don’t fit.

Now, when I see that familiar look in someone’s eyes, I pray for that Synodinos moment for them, pray that I can be one who can help to give it to them. I pray for that crack in the old paradigm that will bring the whole thing crashing down and the imagination that has lain dormant for so long can escape.

Hm. Actually, now that I think about it, Branch (JT) is a prisoner of his own perceived narrative that keeps him gray, grouchy, and small. He needs his own Synodinos (Princess Poppy) to show him the way out, that there IS a way out… Well, maybe Trolls is better than I thought.