There are two types of nostalgia and only one of them is worth anything. The first type is more prolific, and it’s the nostalgia of specificity, honing in on a specific era for the sake of triggering recognition. (Remember black-and-white Game Boys? Remember techno music? Remember John Hughes?) The second type is a more nebulous nostalgia, evoking a longing – for a feeling, a time of life or a sensation through tone and storytelling. You can recognise it when an artwork makes you yearn for a time and place you’ve never experienced. It’s a more effective form of nostalgia because it still requires artists to create their own images and iconography without leaning on pre-existing fists-in-the-air credits or simply rattling off a list of men who made stuff in the 1980s.
Netflix’s Tales of Arcadia franchise is storytelling that recalls what it’s like to be a kid swept up in a fantasy. Even as it enchants children and wins over a new generation of fantasy and sci-fi fans, it also manages to recreate the thrill of discovering your new favourite world as a child. Best of all, it does this without just rehashing imagery from Star Wars or Close Encounters. It wears its influences lightly and creates something new for younger viewers to call their own – it remembers why we loved the things we loved, but does so without aping them or depending on borrowed ideas.
So far, Tales of Arcadia consists of two shows, Trollhunters and 3Below, with the final show in the franchise, Wizards, to follow. Initially teased with the introduction of Aja and Krel in Season 3 of Trollhunters, 3Below is another huge success from the creative team of Guillermo del Toro and Rodrigo Blaas (whose creepy short Alma is miniature masterpiece), although this one takes just a little longer to find its stride than the supremely confident Trollhunters.
Aja, Krel and Varvatos Vex are three refugees fleeing their planet Akiridion-5, after a military coup staged by General Morando. They’re voiced by the insanely stacked cast of Tatiana Maslany, Diego Luna and Nick Offerman, immediately giving the show a planet’s worth of class. They land on Earth, disguise themselves as humans and try to escape the bounty hunters who have been sent to finish off Morando’s work. Only, once they’re here, they find that fitting in comes with more consequences than they’d reckoned with, from romance to science fairs. Oh, and there’s a secret troll uprising that’s happening at the same time, too.
Del Toro and Blaas prove to be real geeks for world-building. Their sci-fi world is dazzling and dense, with lore that they drip-feed into the storytelling. For instance, residents of Akiridion-5 die twice; if they get killed, but their core remains and they avoid that second death, they can be reborn. Other planets are also hinted at, suggesting a universe that exists far beyond the two planets we spend any time on. There’s a consistent aesthetic to the design, too, so that when the worlds of trolls and extraterrestrials cross over, nothing feels out of place. The digital look of the aliens initially has less appeal than the earthy textures of the trolls, but as the show develops, you realise that every detail has been designed with meticulous forethought. It’s fun just to see the weapons, the aliens and the outfits that Blaas and his team have designed, immersing you in the world in a way that will thrill kids and adults who haven’t forgotten the sensation of being swept away by lore and design.
As with Trollhunters, the supporting cast adds to the appeal. There’s an inherently good nature to Arcadia, from the cheery chess players who teach Varvatos the game to Steve and Eli, who become entwined with the fate of the Akiridions. It lends the show a gentle optimism that’s inherently winsome and, gosh darn it, wholesome too. Not that this is without any edge – 3Below comes with a dash of social commentary. “I shall disguise you as the three most ignored groups on the planet,” the mothership says, “a girl, a Latino and a senior.” Yet Arcadia, with its Eden-sounding name, is a place where they’re welcomed. (It’s particularly heartening to see the way the immigrant headmaster at the school takes a stand to defend the refugees.)
And all of this world-building, commentary and lovable supporting cast is piled into a story that’s compelling, pacy and exciting. It wastes no time in getting to the plot, cramming betrayal, assassins, malevolent robots and first dates all into a tight 13-episode arc. With tears and laughs thrown into the mixture, too, you have one of Netflix’s purest pleasures, a show that will delight all of us who love travelling the universe in our imaginations.
3Below: Tales of Arcadia is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.