When Trollhunters debuted back in 2016 on Netflix, the DreamWorks Television Animation project was a weird and wonderful surprise. Created by Guillermo del Toro and based on a YA book he wrote for Disney (back when he was working on his own animation shingle for the company), it delved into a hidden world of magic and monsters, one that existed just beneath the surface of a quiet suburban town. It was a computer-animated, modern-day Stranger Things stuffed with del Toro’s deep love and fascination with mythological world-building and elaborately designed creatures. But what was even more surprising was when DreamWorks and Netflix announced that the show was part of a much grander plan; that two additional series would follow it, forming a kind of televisual trilogy, with the more overtly sci-fi tinged 3Below and, now, the medieval Wizards, coming soon after. (Each show now carries a Tales of Arcadia subtitle.)
And while Wizards was long promised as the sort of end-all be-all for the Tales of Arcadia shows, with every character returning for one final, high-stakes melee, that isn’t exactly true. It is appropriately epic, with more sophisticated visuals and an even greater degree (for better or worse) of complex, deeply entrenched storytelling that pulls from all eras of the greater Trollhunters franchise. But it also feels like less of a culmination than you’d expect, with a number of dangling plot threads and unfinished character arcs that demand resolution.
If you are new to the whole Tales of Arcadia world, then for the love of God do not jump in with Wizards. Most of the story is based on at least a passing understanding of what came before, with more ties to Trollhunters than 3Below. And considering the last new batch of Trollhunters episodes were two years ago, even those committed to the franchise might need a refresher course before continuing Wizards.
If Trollhunters was about bringing medieval archetypes to present day and 3Below was a sci-fi spin on the same basic premise (aliens are among us!), then Wizards is about taking everything back to where it started. This time around, the main character is Douxie (Colin O’Donoghue), who we’ve seen before, but who takes center stage here: he’s a barista in modern day Arcadia but he’s been an apprentice of Merlin’s since the Middle Ages. (Douxie’s sidekick is an adorable flying cat named Archie, voiced by Alfred Molina.) Douxie is still trying to prove himself to the immortal wizard, and after a huge battle takes place in the skies above Arcadia, with Camelot being represented as a floating fortress (cementing how indebted almost all of modern animation is to Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), our heroes are sent back in time to the actual Camelot.
I’m trying to avoid plot specifics, because fans of the franchise have been waiting a long time for Wizards (3Below’s last episode aired more over a year ago). But it is safe to say that almost all of the characters from Trollhunters are reunited in the past, including an injured Jim (Emile Hirsch), a powerful Claire (Lexi Medrano), and Toby (Charlie Saxton), who battle alongside (and, occasionally, against) characters we’ve met from previous entries in the franchise, including Merlin (David Bradley), Morgana (Lena Headey), and Gunmar (Clancy Brown). Part of the fun of Wizards is reconnecting with old friends (the last Trollhunters episodes aired in 2018) and those who you thought you had lost, while seeing the origins of some characters who you never got to see, since their history was so far in the past (AAARRRGGHH!!!’s arc is undeniably a highlight). The new setting, and the emphasis on past characters, also allows us new insight into the creation of the amulet that Merlin made that grants the powers of the Trollhunter, and we get to see a young, female (!) troll take on the title (it’s a new character voiced by the great Stephanie Beatriz).
And while that might sound like pure fan fiction, del Toro and his collaborators have added some new elements to the mix that keeps everything feeling fresh. There are a race of evil, forest-dwelling creatures (again, shades of Miyazaki) that serve as a powerful new enemy and have some surprising connections to our characters, and when the action shifts back to modern day Arcadia for the last few episodes (catching up with at least one of your 3Below favorites), even more secrets are revealed. Occasionally all of the medieval battles and entrenched conflict makes Wizards feel like Lil’ Game of Thrones, with allegiances and double-crosses becoming something of a confusing muddle, especially if you’re binging the show or haven’t properly re-watched the other series. But mostly, it’s a ton of fun.
Also adding to the impressiveness of this season/series is the fact that the animation has dramatically improved since the early days of Trollhunters. The battles, while occasionally tiresome, are rendered in truly gob-smacking detail; ditto the aerial battles and some of the new character designs. Some of the limitations of the more budget-conscious computer animation that Wizards is built on, is that it does things like stone and craggy monsters really well (ditto spaceships and other sleek, hard, shiny surfaces), but when it comes to more organic settings and characters, it gets a little wobblier. But Wizards, which is set largely outdoors in a forest, is absolutely stunning. Everything about the world is fully realized, with incredible detail, and things like the furriness of Archie feel wholly believable and tactile. It really looks exceptional, and as the visual culmination of the franchise so far, it is hard to top.
But that brings us to the fact that this cannot possibly be the end of the line for the Tales of Arcadia universe. Unlike Trollhunters or 3Below, there are only 10 episodes of Wizards, which occasionally gives the story a super-condensed, nearly rushed feeling, like “we’ve got to get through this.” And at the end of the 10 episodes, there are still lingering questions… it even ends on a cliffhanger! While there have been rumors of an extension to the series, possibly as a movie or series of movies, that doesn’t feel very fair. Nearly from the beginning, we’d been told Wizards would end things. Now that it’s here and it doesn’t (also, there are a ton of characters who you want to see return) … what does that mean?