How much of the journey is worth it when you’re scratching your head at the destination? That’s the question one must confront in Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans.
Originating from the book series created by del Toro and Daniel Kaus, 2016 series Trollhunters kicked off Tales of Arcadia as part of Netflix’s quest to produce original animation for children. You don’t go into Trollhunters and its two series successors, 3Below and Wizards, expecting form-breaking storytelling for Western children’s cartoons, but each series had plenty to offer: Del Toro’s colorful realms with their own mythology, slapstick one-liners in the midst of swordplay, and colorful creatures from lovable AAARRRGGHH (Fred Tatasciore) to the paternal Blinky (Kelsey Grammar) with his teacher bravado.
All set in the sleepy town of Arcadia, Trollhunters explored the mounting responsibilities of a Chosen-One mantle held by a human boy Jim (Emile Hirsch), 3Below introduced a force of extraterrestrial characters in a breezy sci-fi fish-out-of-water comedy and allegory about loving our immigrant neighbors, and the stuffy one-season Wizards explored navigating—and grieving—a flawed guardian figure while hurling through Arthurian time travel shenanigans.
From the mind that wove the imagination of adult-oriented Pan’s Labyrinth and Kronos, the child-friendly Tales of Arcadia contains del Toro’s signature affection for cog-twirling contraptions, mechas, magic, and creatures lurking in the underground or alleyways. In Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans, the 104-minute filmic finale, our familiar gang of trolls and humans from Trollhunters, extraterrestrial pals from 3Below, and the magicians of Wizards have assembled to defeat evil.
The Arcane Order of primordial wizards (Kay Bess, Piotr Michael) plots to cleanse the Earth of human life for a new world order. Starting with a thrilling subway skirmish of magic and portal summoning, the Order seeks to snatch earth-spirit Nari (Angel Lin) from the wizard Douxie’s (Colin O’Donoghue) protection to open a magical seal that would awaken the titans. Things go south. Like pilots in mechas, the Arcane Order operate elemental titan bodies of earth, ice, and volcanic fire and must reach the center of the Earth, which is – you guessed it, Arcadia. (Nari, poor sweet Nari, more MacGuffin than character and didn’t get much development other than a conscientious will from her debut in the crammed Wizards.)
The movie answers the burning question: How does Jim deal with losing his signature amulet? His answer is a heartfelt concoction of magic and tech (thank you, del Toro) and the support of friendship. No one else really receives a culminating development, although a few alumni display the maturation they acquired across three shows. 3Below star Aja (Tatiana Maslany, tough-as-nails) emerges as the MVP and makes a welcomed return from her home planet. Aja’s experience as ruler has molded her hardass devotion to leadership and she’s unafraid of butting heads with her friends over the counsel table.
The movie bellows the epicness of a finale. Characters reaffirm the Trollhunters mantras (the show refreshingly told kids from the getgo to “be afraid” as an encouragement that fear is a valid driving force). Titans is strongest when it busies itself with notching the stakes and challenging the comfort of our characters. Castmembers make sacrifices and their deaths echo throughout.
Equipped with a DreamWorks Animation team, directed by Johane Matte, Francisco Ruiz Velasco, and Andrew L. Schmidt, this finale has the usual craft to render a color-popping world hidden from the human eye. Midway, a giddy mecha sequence channels the silly heart of del Toro’s Pacific Rim.
However, provoking distaste is the sudden insertion of a Chinese-based troll society. Rise of the Titans treats the realm and its inhabitants as a decorative set-piece, an exotic “other” if you will, which includes an avaricious antagonist voiced by James Hong. This is precluded by an omittable careless scene of our heroes being forced to ambush defensive Chinese humans during a debate about whether they should be diplomatic or violent.
Conceptually, Hong’s villain embodies a worthwhile Gollumesque archetype. But the depiction of his regime is more of a problematic interference rather than a world-building delight. Even if this was released before the COVID-19 pandemic and its outbreak of anti-Asian violence, the shades of sinophobia are hard to overlook.
Rise of the Titans toys with the stakes by placing crowds in danger (including a hilarious field trip gag) but the results feel mixed when the heroes’ strategizing barely accounts for civilian damage. The franchise is not one to show bloody carnage, but it does not ensure human safety amid falling and flying debris and cutaways of crowds running from a compromised traffic filled bridge—that is, until it appears indirectly acknowledged in the final minutes. Recall Pacific Rim where Del Toro made a point to evacuate cities to make space for epic property damage while not worrying about civilian casualties.
But then the movie arrives at a final decision regarding fate (compare it to the conceptually tamer Groundhog Day-inspired “D’aja Vu” episode in 3Below). One interpretation is that the finale wanted to achieve dramatic heft but wasn’t prepared to commit to it. So the script rationalized its final moments, loading a Chekhov’s gun with a riddle and a MacGuffin. I respect its stretch of ambition but the concluding mood is at odds with the existential possibilities. The ending questions all the emotional investment made in the coming-of-age beats we held dear to across six seasons of Arcadia stories.
Until an announcement proves me wrong, it doesn’t appear as of now that Rise of the Titans will lead to follow-ups in the franchise. The conclusion of the Arcadia saga has its visual glories and kickbutt imagination and humor. But you’ll wonder if your favorite characters are given their due.
Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans will stream on Netflix on July 21.