This Trollhunters review is spoiler-free…
Netflix is entering into a new era of original content, hoping to double its amount of original content in the coming year. Much of the discussion around this exponential swell in Netflix original content has been around live-action, both scripted and unscripted, but less has been given to what will be coming out of Netflix’s multi-year deal with Dreamworks Animation. This includes Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters, set to hit Netflix on December 23rd. We had the chance to view four of the season’s 26 episodes. Here’s what we thought…
If the rest of Netflix’s new original content is half as good as Trollhunters(which boasts Former Pixar animator Rodrigo Blaas, who directed the short film Alma, as a showrunner),then we’re in for a immense treat. Based on the book del Toro wrote with Daniel Kraus, animated adventure series Trollhunterstells the story of human teen Jim Lake (Anton Yelchin, in his final role), a kid growing up with a single mom in the suburban city of Arcadia. Reminiscent of 1980s adventures movies like The Goonies(and in line thematically, in some ways, with Netflix’s other 80s-inspired series Stranger Things), Trollhuntersis a rich fictional world where the line between the normal and the supernatural is blurred.
“Beneath your feet, there is a secret world,” good troll Blinky (Kelsey Grammer), Jim’s Yoda-like mentor, tell us. “A vast civilization where good trolls live and evil trolls lurk. For centuries, these lands have been protected by one warrior.” When the previous Trollhunter dies, Jim is tasked with protecting both that world and our own from the dangers of evil trolls, namely from the evil Bular (Ron Perlman), who seeks to destroy all Trollhunters. Jim’s job is further complicated by the fact that he is the first human Trollhunter that the magical amulet has chosen, and this causes quite a stir in Troll Market, an underground city that lies at the heart of the good troll society.
Narratively, Trollhuntersdoes a great job balancing its two seemingly disparate worlds: the one that exists in underground, in the shadows, and the one above ground, filled with carefully-manicured residential neighborhoods, dentists offices, and non-descript school hallways. The above-ground world of Arcadia could have been dull in comparison to the fantastic subterranean world of the trolls, gnomes, and goblins, but it’s equally as interesting.
As we all know, Del Toro’s every project is driven by passion and the stories that inspire the beloved director. The same is true for Trollhunters. Jim’s Trollhunter armor and sword may be inspired by Arthurian legend, but the lazy streets of Arcadia are inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin classics. They’re distinct legendary visions, but both myths in their own right, and both seemingly equally exciting for del Toro. That excitement translates to the screen and to the viewer.
From the very first episode, del Toro and Blaas infuse Trollhunterswith a real sense of danger as powerful creatures from this subterranean world lurk in liminal spaces, just out of view of passers-by. And, when night falls on Arcadia, all bets are off. “You have a sweet voice, but you bring death with you,” one character tells a troll early on in the series. This is kind of the perfect summation of this show: It’s fun, clever, and full of heart, but it also does a good job crafting a sense of danger and stakes, as we have come to expect from del Toro’s consistent record of stories featuring creepy creatures.
Del Toro’s work is consistently impressive when it comes to visuals and worldbuilding, but, personally, I don’t always fall in love with his characters and stories. This isn’t the case with Trollhunterswhere its relationships are front and center. The dynamic at the heart of the story is the one between Jim and best friend Toby (Charlie Saxton), a pudgy, braces-wearing young teen with a heart of gold.
At New York Comic Con, del Toro said that Toby is based on a childhood version of himself, and it’s easy to see the similarities in the way both del Toro and Toby seem to find immense joy in the “little” things. Eternally up for an adventure if it means hanging out with his best friend, Toby is more than comic relief (though he often gets the hilarious, tension-alleviating one-liners); he is the sidekick who goes along on the journey, even though he isn’t The Chosen One and he doesn’t have fancy, magic armor to protect him. He does it for his friend… and, occasionally, for tacos.
While Jim is a hero-type we have seen countless times before — the good-natured kid who has greatness foisted upon him and who must figure out how to handle it — Yelchin imbues him with a vulnerability, wit, and overall range of emotion that makes him instantly relatable. In particularly, Jim’s interactions with his mom, for whom he regularly cooks dinner and does his overall best not to worry, give the character an immense likeability. We want to see this character succeed because he tries when he doesn’t have to, because he cares about the people in his life, because he is good. And, in all this mythological adventure, we never forget that Jim is a kid — even when he is asked to save the world.
Visually, Trollhuntersis a cinematic treat. Like much of the Dreamworks library, the style calls to mind film classics, while painted in a bright, colorful palette that is all too rare in live-action fare these days. Del Toro, along with executive producers Marc Guggenheim and Blaas, has drawn from a broad mythic spectrum — everything from Arthurian legend to Nordic folklore to modern cinema — to create this world of trolls, gnomes, changelings, goblins, and small town suburbia. It’s an incredibly ambitious blending of mythologies that is held together by the stunning visuals, the impressive voice cast, and the subtle character work.
Right now, it can be hard to find a story to fully escape into, but Trollhuntersmanages to craft a joyful, yet high-stakes fictional world where a wonderful, dangerous magic is just out of sight, ready to take you if you let it. It is a coming-of-age adventure story where friendship (sometimes, with trolls), bike-riding, and good old-fashioned heroism can be enough. Watch Trollhunters if you have kids. Watch Trollhuntersif you don’t.
To find out more about Trollhunter,check out our news hub. And stay tuned for interviews from the cast and creators of the Netflix/Dreamworks animated show. All episodes of Trollhuntershit Netflix on December 23rd.