There is a scene in a later episode of Trollhunters where an enemy invades Jim’s (the late Anton Yelchin) home, drugs his unsuspecting mother, and goads Jim into a battle. Jim rushes outside to cross swords with the intruder, only to stop and pivot back to the dining room in order to remove his snoring mom’s glasses and gently set them on the table so the frames won’t get bent. Satisfied, he goes to battle. Small human moments like these elevate Trollhunters from a painfully generic hero’s journey into an enjoyable and worthwhile adventure.
Trollhunters is produced by DreamWorks and based off a book director Guillermo Del Toro co-wrote with Daniel Kraus. Discovering Del Toro has a writing credit is a surprise at first, given how generically the show begins. Nothing about its candy-bright visual presentation feels like the director’s fondness for unsettling baroque imagery. Trollhunters is set in a color-saturated, gem-hued world, the sort of look popularized by video games like Warcraft or Skylanders. Indeed, the trolls themselves look like the collectable figurines that are a necessary component to the Skylanders game, their blocky shapes slick and seemingly designed to be easily reproducible in plastic. Though he’s not involved in the show, there are faint traces of Hellboy artist and frequent Del Toro collaborator Mike Mignola’s style in the tattoo-like etchings the trolls bear on their stony bodies.
Initially, the story feels no less machine-fabricated than the character designs. Jim is an awkward teenager who lives alone with his overworked physician mom. Biking to school one day through a dried-up canal, he stumbles on a magical amulet that bestows the powers and responsibilities of the Trollhunter (one who hunts on behalf of trolls, not one who hunts trolls, lest the title seems to contradict the spirit of the station). Will this reluctant hero embrace his destiny? Will he transcend his outsider status and be embraced by a mistrustful and tradition-rich culture? Can he avoid getting beaten up by the class preppie, and will the girl he has a crush on ever even know he’s alive? Each plot point is a prefabricated piece snapped off a plastic spruce and stuck together according to the labelled tabs.
But around halfway through the second episode, real heart begins to unfurl in the show. This is due in no small part to the presence of Jim’s troll mentors: the sage Blinky (a perfect Kelsey Grammer) and the giant named AAAARRRGGHH!!! (Fred Tatasciore), a massive beast of a troll and also an avowed pacifist (“What a waste of a brute!”). They provide a necessary depth to the show and are far more enjoyable to watch than Jim or his human pals, the wacky best friend Toby (Charlie Saxton) and honorary XX chromosome-haver unrequited crush Claire (Lexi Medrano). The trolls have to tutor Jim on how to be a successful Trollhunter, all while he’s being pursued by the evil troll Bular (Ron Perlman), who killed Jim’s predecessor and wants the amulet for his own.
The animation is polished and looks great for the show’s big set pieces. Del Toro really loves the idea of monsters engaging in commerce. One of the best scenes the director staged for Hellboy II took place in a troll market packed full of weird little characters. Apparently this resonated enough with him that he uses the same premise as the home of the series’ trolls. Here, the troll market is the name for the sprawling market that exists under the earth where all the fairy-tale creatures reside. It’s a mystical food court that’s brimming with neon signs and strange nooks and corners, all ringing a giant pillar of crystal.
The show’s fight scenes are dynamic but easy to follow, and a few feature clever set pieces. A battle between Jim and a disgruntled troll that takes place on a shifting, clockwork arena is particularly well-staged. But for as well as the style avails itself of the big things, there are some notable limitations. The human character models range from unengaging to odd. A scene where Jim’s mom breaks down explaining why the loss of her husband has her so worried about her son never comes visually close to expressing the emotion reflected in the voice acting. The characters may as well be marionettes—they can telegraph broad movements, but are incapable of offering any gesture more delicate than a slight tilt of the head.
The series never fully shakes off the rigid, by-the-numbers storytelling, or its underdeveloped characters, but the frequent moments of heart and humor elevate what would otherwise be a cold, slick thing of stone. If nothing else, it’s a great introduction to Guillermo Del Toro you can share with your kids until they’re old enough to watch Cronos with you.