We are discovering that it’s worth maintaining a Netflix subscription solely for their lineup of original content. Sure, being able to stream Captain America: Civil War and all the CW superhero shows is nice, but not as nice as having shows like Luke Cage, BoJack Horseman and Orange Is the New Black at your fingertips. And it’s not just older viewers that these original projects cater towards. Trollhunters is may be geared towards a more all-ages audience, but it also happens to be one of the best new additions to the Netflix library in quite some time.
Trollhunters is a partnership between Netflix and Dreamworks Animation that premiered just in time to take advantage of the holiday break with last year’s Dawn of the Croods. Trollhunters is quite a bit more ambitious than its predecessor, however. It’s based on a fantasy book created by director Guillermo del Toro and writer Daniel Klaus and features robust CG animation rather than the 2D approach of Dawn of the Croods. Throw How to Train Your Dragon and Pan’s Labyrinth in a blender, sprinkle in a dash of Spider-Man and you have Trollhunters.
Trollhunters is also notable with featuring one of the final performances from the late Anton Yelchin (Star Trek). Yelchin voices Jim Lake, a plucky teenager whose life is complicated and busy enough even before he finds himself bonded with a mystical suit of armor and tasked with defending a secret city of trolls from a dark enemy. The series’ name is a bit misleading in that sense, as Jim isn’t hunting all trolls, just a particularly vicious and nasty sub-group bent on world domination. Other major players in the series include Jim’s bumbling best friend, Toby (Betas’ Charlie Saxton), his high school crush, Claire (Modern Family’s Lexi Medrano), his troll mentor, Blinky (Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer), Blinky’s loyal, monosyllabic partner, AAARRGGHH! (Avengers Assemble’s Fred Tatasciore) and Mr. Strickler (The Strain’s Jonathan Hyde), a seemingly benevolent teacher with his own ties to the troll underworld.
Trollhunters was originally conceived as a film rather than a TV series, and that shift really does seem to have been for the best. On paper, Trollhunters seems like pretty standard animated fantasy fare, and even the first handful of episodes don’t do much break that mold. Jim is your typical teen hero with a heart of gold whom fate morphs from social outcast to heroic adventurer. Toby is the obligatory overweight comic relief. Claire initially comes across as another textbook, doe-eyed love interest. Had Trollhunters been framed as a 90-minute film rather than a 26-episode TV season, it would probably never have the chance to escape those tropes and become something more.
Luckily, Trollhunters does have that extra room to play with, and it’s not long before it moves past “How to Train Your Troll” territory into more interesting and less predictable territory. The characters, both heroes and villains, take on a great deal of depth over the course of the series. Jim is nothing if not a compelling protagonist. Like Peter Parker, he struggles with the “with great power must also come great responsibility” idea and the need to balance the ordinary trials of high school and puberty with the pressures of training to defend troll-kind from its greatest enemy. Jim is forced to make a number of difficult choices over the course of the season, and he doesn’t always make the right ones. He’s constantly forced to choose between keeping his loved ones safe or being honest with them. The finale in particular puts Jim through a physical and emotional wringer, leaving him in an unexpected place by the end. That alone justifies the need for a Season 2, though how Yelchin’s passing will impact the future of the show remains to be seen. It should be noted that Yelchin’s voice work is instrumental in making the character work as much as he does. Despite having been in his mid-20’s while working on the show, Yelchin expertly captures the voice of an awkward, puberty-stricken teenager on the verge of becoming a man.
The show is called “Trollhunters,” not “Trollhunter,” and the supporting cast becomes increasingly important over time, particularly in the latter half of the season. Toby gradually evolves from simple comic relief to a fully realized character in his own right. He battles his own set of inadequacies and the trauma of being an orphan child raised by his senile, half-blind grandmother. Some of the most charming and emotionally affecting scenes involve the bond between Toby and his “wingman,” AAARRGGHH! As for Claire, she becomes a much stronger character in the second half of the season as she takes a more active role in Jim’s quest. She’s one of several characters that grows as she learns there’s much more to the world than the shallow reality of high school.
The long-from approach benefits the villains as much as anyone else. It’s very much to the show’s credit that several characters who could be classified as villains early on no longer fit the description by the end of the season. This applies to Mr. Strickler as much as anyone. Hyde excels in the role, bringing the same dignified charm and latent menace to the character he does to Eldritch Palmer in The Strain. Strickler is very much cut from the same cloth as Palmer. He’s supremely self-serving, but increasingly burdened by guilt over his role in bringing about a world-ending apocalypse and by the connections he forms with both Jim and his mother (Transparent’s Amy Landecker). Then there’s Draal (Final Fantasy XV’s Matthew Waterson), a battle-hardened troll who greatly resents what he sees as his birthright being usurped by a puny human. But over the course of the season, the two characters evolve from bitter rivals to stalwart allies. Even the two primary troll villains, Bular (Hellboy’s Ron Perlman) and Angor Rot (Quantum of Solace’s Ike Amadi) have deep shades of gray.
In general, strong writing helps the show thrive as much as anything else. Trollhunters may be all-ages in focus, but it never dumbs itself down for younger viewers. There are some fairly dark themes at play. There’s plenty of suffering invovled for every character. There’s also a lot of bathroom humor and slapstick. It’s an eclectic blend, made all the more unusual by the presence of trolls, goblins, gnomes, pixies and various other fantasy creatures. Each race is unique and brings its own flavor to the table. Were this a movie, it’s easy to picture the gnomes becoming the breakout stars a la the Minions from Despicable Me. The show avoids being too campy or too dark, and like many Pixar films, manages to appeal to a wide audience.
Trollhunters sticks to a serialized structure throughout all 26 episodes. While each chapter more or less stands on its own, it also adds to the larger narrative as Jim moves closer to his destiny. The season really breaks down into two smaller arcs, one focused on Bular and the other on Angor Rot. Both arcs could have stood to be tightened up a little bit in terms of pacing, as they tend to drag slightly in the middle and then wade through a sea of plot twists toward the end. Maybe a slightly lower episode count would have helped. I don’t know that the series really needed an entire episode devoted to Claire breaking up a troll house party. But even so, these 26 episodes tell a clear, engaging hero’s journey that wraps up nicely by the end while leaving plenty of room for a potential Season 2.
While the writing and voice work are Trollhunter’s strongest elements, the animation doesn’t disappoint either. The show is rendered in a familiar style that evokes films of the past decade like How to Train Your Dragon and Hotel Transylvania (with Claire looking like she could be the younger sister of Mavis Dracula). But the fact that a TV series looks nearly as good as either of those big-screen franchises is pretty darned impressive. Compared to the sometimes rigid figures and sterile environments of a show like Star Wars Rebels, Trollhunters oozes detail and personality. The colorful environments and varied character designs give Trollhunters a strong sense of personality. And the action scenes never disappoint, whether Jim and friends are exploring the bowels of a giant troll or trading blows with monsters composed of hundreds of crystal shards. Del Toro’s unique visual sensibilities remain apparent every step of the way.