Acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is renowned for his striking visual style and wild imagination that’s often on display in his live-action films, but in Netflix’s animated series Trollhunters, del Toro’s vivid storytelling comes to life in the most colorful way yet. The highly accessible tale for viewers of all ages centers on Jim Lake Jr., an unlikely hero who finds a magical and monstrous world of wonders hidden beneath his otherwise mundane suburban setting. But despite how beautiful and mythologically diverse this secret world is, it brings its own dangers to the world above it, dangers Jim and his friends must defend against. And as a bonus, Trollhunters is the most kid-friendly del Toro joint you’re ever going to come across.
Starring the late Anton Yelchin as Jim in one of his final performances, alongside Charlie Saxton as his best bud Toby, Kelsey Grammer as Blinky, Ron Perlman as the villainous Bular, Steven Yeun as the bully Steve, as well as Fred Tatasciore, Jonathan Hyde, Lexi Medrano, and Amy Landecker, Trollhunters is available to stream on Netflix now.
The otherworldly tale is adapted from his book by the same name and follows the story of Jim, an unassuming high school student who happens upon a magical amulet that bestows upon him the title and the powers of the Trollhunter. But that’s not where our story starts. Trollhunters storms through the gate in an opening battle between the title character (who’s a troll at this point) and an evil troll named Bular. The two battle under a bridge over what looks like the Los Angeles River just before sunrise; it quickly becomes apparent that the time of day is a matter of life and death to these creatures. What also becomes clear is that the mantle of the Trollhunter does not pass easily from one bearer to the next…
In the two-part premiere, you already know the heroic origin story you’re going to get: a reluctant but gold-hearted protagonist is chosen to become a defender of the defenseless against all odds. But while the steps along the path of the hero may be very familiar to those of us who’ve seen that story play out a number of times, it’s a solid hero’s journey for a young generation of viewers who may be puzzling that arc out for the first time. And even if you have seen this tale before, the visual style of Trollhunters and its cast of characters adds more than enough flavor to make it worth the watch.
There’s Jim, of course, a student/caretaker who’s mature beyond his years; he takes on the responsibilities of a household without a father and has a caring but often absent mother who pulls double shifts as a doctor. His best pal Toby is a roly poly scaredy-cat whose short, squat stature is physically opposite from Jim’s, just as his own cautious nature is in contrast with Jim’s adventurous spirit. (Toby is 99% del Toro as a kid.) Jim and Toby make a perfect pair of Amblin Entertainment protagonists, as referenced by executive producer Marc Guggenheim in our recent interview with him. And much like in those classic 80s movies in which very ordinary kids are tasked with extraordinary responsibilities, there’s also an ever expanding cast of crazy characters.
The ensemble of other-worldly creatures–including the title trolls, plus big-eyed goblins, sharp-toothed gnomes, duplicitous shape-shifters, and even humans who skew toward the side of villainy—starts out small and then swells to epic proportions that more aptly fit a story from the imagination of del Toro. Once the Troll Market is revealed in all its crystalline splendor, the real adventure begins as Bular makes his play for the Trollhunter’s amulet, now in the hands of a puny human.
This conflict serves as the main source of tension, but as the audience becomes more familiar with the characters and the vast mythology available to chew over, more complex relationships start to develop. Jim and Toby’s friendship goes through ups and downs, high school romances complicate matters somewhat, and the fact that Jim is not all that well received by the Trolls themselves adds a whole other dynamic. But I was surprised to find that time is also taken to explore the relationship between Jim and his mother, which is something you don’t see too often in animated adventure series.
What I particularly liked about Jim’s personality is that, despite not being the greatest natural athlete or fighter, he soon finds that he has a penchant for turning enemies into allies. It does, however, take Jim and those allies a few episodes to become competent enough fighters to take on the gathered villains who seek to unleash terrors upon the surface world, and when they do, it’s a thrilling battle to be sure. There’s an episode that would serve nicely as a Season 1 finale, but luckily there are 26 half-hour episodes to enjoy, and plenty of story threads that are worthy of exploration. Check out the two-part premiere to get a sample, and you should find yourself binging the whole series this holiday season!
Rating: ★★★★ Very good