This is a spoiler free review.
“Lively” isn’t only the frequent interjection of its main character, it’s a great description for 3Below: Tales of Arcadia, the animated Netflix series from Guillermo del Toro, executive producer Marc Guggenheim and Dreamworks Animation. 3Belowis lively, humorous, fast, and fun.
Although the first season of the new show is available now on the streaming platform, 3Below is the second of three chapters of del Toro’s connected universe — which also includes three seasons of Trollhunters, likewise set in the town of Arcadia.
But instead of a magical realm of trolls, 3Below focuses on a trio of energy-based aliens from the Tron-esque world of Akiridian-5: Princess Aja (Tatiana Maslany), Prince Krel (Diego Luna), and bodyguard Commander Varvatos Vex (Nick Offerman). After escaping a violent coup, they head to Earth in a damaged ship. As the sentient ship Mother (voiced by Glenn Close) repairs itself, and as the “dead” king and queen regenerate on board, the aliens must go unnoticed on earth, disguised as a Latino boy, young woman, and elderly man. And Mother takes the form of a 1950s surburban home, complete with Ward-and-June Cleaver droids posing as parents.
What results is a fish-out-of-water sci-fi action comedy that also serves up light-touch commentary about society, and our treatment in the U.S. of aliens (in this case, it’s extraterrestrial aliens who resemble undocumented people).
While also seeking parts to repair their ship — and evade evil bounty hunters sent from beyond — the alien royalty attempt to assimilate in a new school, and tackle the challenges of being human teens, and outsiders. The metaphor of teenagers as aliens trying to fit in, and discover the kinds of people they want to be, is on the nose. And the theme of grief these two refugees feel, over their lost world and lost family, is touching. But the show doesn’t ruminate too long on the serious messages, which works for family entertainment.
In fact, 3Below is consistently funny, if you appreciate sophomoric humor and slapstick gags — and I do. Offerman’s character of Vex, a blustery warrior who speaks in grand proclamations of “glorious deaths” is especially likable since his disguise is of a senior citizen with back problems, and a walker with tennis ball glide caps. Yes, he is almost too over the top, but Offerman sells it as Vex ridiculously threatening a chess opponent to “drink his blood from the keg of glory.”
The show is often charming in dealing with the character’s flaws. Aja is training to be a warrior, but also develops a crush on a doofus of a human boy. And tech-genius Krel is desperate to make friends, but often comes off as arrogant, and off-putting. Meanwhile, they also have their own Royal superfan/sidekick in the form of Stuart (Nick Frost), who has been stranded on Earth for decades, and blends in as a Burrito-truck-driving, human-culture loving slacker. He often serves as a guide to the planet’s customs, as well as a foil to Vex.
As it happens, Stuart’s story in Episode 4 coincides with the series finding its footing. At this point, the larger threat from Zeron Brotherhood of bounty hunters is in play, and Trollhunters characters, such as reformed bully Steve Palchuk (Steven Yuen), play more of a role in the plot.
Speaking of which, 3Below doesn’t take long to establish that its first season coincides with the timeline in Trollhunters’ third when Aja and Krel were introduced. In fact, Episode 6, “D’aja Vu,” is a Groundhog Day adventure with the main Trollhunters characters, and is one of the best of the batch because it teases out how well the magic and sci-fi elements of Arcadia fit with one another. Also great fun is “The Arcadian Job” heist episode that pits the alien characters against the military.
The series benefits from the excellent acting by Luna, and the still-vastly underrated Maslany, who make Krel and Aja feel real, and sometimes a little annoying – like actual teens. But the rest of cast, — Offerman, Close, Frost, Andy Garcia, Uzo Aduba, Cheryl Hines, Tom Kenny, Haley Atwell, Danny Trejo and Ann Dowd – each up the quality of the series.
3Below is not terribly complicated, and perhaps that is what makes it endearing; it possesses the childlike wonder, and humor, of del Toro, and wears its heart on its sleeve. Though it does have poignant themes of loss, and alienation (and a brief, but oddly touching villain death that is given a moment to breathe, and make an impact), this is an animated show right at home with a Saturday morning cartoon lineup that should be watched with the kids.