Trollhunters Season 1
Anton Yelchin, Kelsey Grammer, Ron Perlman
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“…the best children’s animation to come along since Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
It’s a rote children’s/YA trope: a teenage boy who already has his hands full with the usual responsibilities and torments of adolescence stumbles across a magical item that opens his eyes to a hidden world of danger and wonder. Thrust into the role of the hero, he must battle evil while shielding his loved ones from the truth. There may even be something about great power coming loaded with great responsibility in the mix. Handled poorly, it’s a complete yawnfest. Handled well? You might just have something for the ages.
Trollhunters comes to us courtesy of ace fantasist Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) and DreamWorks Animation. It’s handled very well indeed.
Our hero is 15 year old Jim Lake Jr (voiced by the late Anton Yelchin, and it is bittersweet knowing this is one of his last performances) who finds himself chosen by a magical amulet to become the Trollhunter, whose counter-intuitive job it is to protect the teeming civilisation of trolls and other weird creatures that live beneath his hometown of Avalon. Training him for the role are erudite multi-ocular troll Blinky (Kelsey Grammer, bringin’ it) and the hulking but gentle Aaarrrgghh (Fred Tatasciore), while human help comes from his tubby best mate, Toby (Charlie Saxton) and love interest, Claire (Lexi Medrano). He’ll need those extra hands on deck, as an evil troll by the name of Bular (Ron Perlman, because of course Ron Perlman) to unleash his father, Gunmar (Clancy Brown, because of course Clancy Brown) and his army from the dark dimension whence they’ve been banished.
As noted, in the broad strokes it’s pretty standard modern fantasy boilerplate, but Trollhunters sings in the details. The production design is sublime, marrying del Toro’s esoteric and idiosyncratic Euro-fantasy leanings with DreamWorks’ clean and appealing in-house style – think Hellboy meets How to Train Your Dragon. The creature designs are striking and elegant, from stooping, gorilla-like trolls to creeping, green-limbed goblins to a golem made of turf that recalls but does not mimic the Forest God of Hellboy II. Speaking of that film, we also get another Troll Market here, and it seems that’s a trope GDT will never tire of repurposing.
The mythology is tight, too, with the series drawing from a number of literary and folkloric sources (Arthurian myth, Norse legend, Lord Dunsany, Shakespeare) to pull together something at once familiar and new. Perhaps the best contemporary analogue would be Neil Gaiman’s works for younger readers – and like like those tomes, Trollhunters isn’t afraid to go dark when it needs to. For all its gorgeous animation and appealing characters, this is a series that skews at least a little older.
What really works, though, are the characters and their relationships – and there’s a good reason the title is a plural. Trollhunters eschews the “chosen one” narrative form to a degree by highlighting how Jim wins against the odds through cooperation and teamwork, while a lot of the story focuses on relationships drawn directly from the Peter Parker Playbook, with Jim trying to take care of his single mother, deal with a bully at school, not catastrophically fail his classes and, oh yes, save the day from time to time.
This is a really great series, and probably the best children’s animation to come along since Avatar: The Last Airbender. Obviously with Yelchin’s untimely passing the future of Trollhunters is in doubt, but let’s hope they decide on a work-around – more time spent in this hidden world would be welcome.