Don’t you hate it when you find out that underneath your nice, normal town sits a gargantuan hidden world of monsters wanting to kill you? That’s what happens to Jim Lake Jr. (Anton Yelchin) in Trollhunters, Guillermo del Toro’s new animated series. The world underneath his suburb of Arcadia? That’s where the trolls live. And Jim? He’s the new Trollhunter, after he picks up an amulet that transforms him into a gleaming warrior, complete with humongous sword.
Trolls. Hunting. Magical worlds. These are all the best words for Guillermo del Toro fans and he doesn’t disappoint, taking the premise from his own book and running with it as far as his imagination can take him. And as the filmmaker’s career has proven time and time again, his imagination goes a long way.
It’s a joy, therefore, to have him turn his hand to something more suitable for young viewers. Produced by DreamWorks Animation, the result sits comfortably alongside the studio’s magnificent How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which has already spawned several Netflix original spin-off series. Trollhunters, though, is immediately distinctive from any other animation you’ve seen, thanks to its creature designs and expansive mythology, as well as its emotional warmth.
The tone is set from the opening scene, which has nothing to do with Jim and everything to do with two trolls pummelling the gizzards out of each other. It’s an introduction that will have children of all ages hooked, as the series lays out some of its best qualities: the monsters look wonderful, with bulging bits, pointy bits and glowy bits all present and correct; the choreography is dynamic, making sure the fights change with every new showdown, depending on who’s wielding what weapon; and the soundtrack, from composer Tim Davies (conductor on La La Land, orchestrator for Frozen, additional music for Crimson Peak), has the epic feel to back up the visuals (Alexandre Desplat’s opening theme is equally brilliant). Best of all, perhaps, is its sense of location: the whole thing takes place under a bridge, but not a bridge over a lake in a forest, but one in the middle of a metropolis, with the two trolls blending in and out of the shadows – the kind of unseen magical realism that makes Harry Potter so easy to believe.
It also introduces us to Bular, who is voiced by Ron Perlman and looks, sounds and acts exactly like a troll voiced by Ron Perlman should – he’s big, mean and rumbles with a bass line that could intimidate Steve Harris. After killing the existing Trollhunter, he skulks back into the underworld – trolls can’t go into daylight, a bit of exposition that’s smartly woven into the action – which means that when Jim finds the amulet, it comes with a healthy dose of genuine peril; shiny swords are cool and everything, but he really could die.
This is dark stuff for a kids’ series, but Trollhunters serves it up with a beautifully light touch – former Pixar animator Rodrigo Blaas is on board as showrunner, so you know your children are in safe hands. It’s no coincidence that the next trolls we meet are Blinky (Kelsey Grammer) and ARRR (“That’s three Rs!”), two friendly, helpful critters, who are on Jim’s side and have sworn an oath of non-violence. They still tell it like it is, but Grammer’s omens of doom have a reassuring note, like a knitted jumper you where to protect yourself from being stabbed with an ice pick. “I don’t wanna die,” admits Jim. “Goodness gracious!” comes the reply. “Who does?!”
Jim’s other sidekick comes in the human form of Toby (Charlie Saxton), who easily fills the role of slobby, clumsy friend. But what could be a chubby, nerdy stereotype manages to be much more than that, thanks to both the writing team and Saxton’s performance, as we soon discover that Toby isn’t just a tag-along pal, but a boy with sincere loyalty to his BFF. The fact that he’s funny too is a bonus.
It’s a shame, then, that the same can’t be said of Claire (an excellent Lexi Medrano), who struggles to be more than just the romantic interest that convention dictates. Elsewhere, the show playfully leans on traditions of the genre, borrowing from the young-kid-becomes-a-hero textbook but giving it a fresh spin through Nordic and other folklore, combining a Spielbergian fondness for kids on bicycles with trucks being thrown at them and vanishing blades. There is hope, from the plural in the title, that Claire could, like Toby, evolve to be more than her damsel-in-waiting (complete with literal knight in shining armour) outside of the four episodes made available to review, but with few women around in the show, she feels like a sadly underwritten opportunity. Even Jim’s enjoyably sinister teacher (who can tell he’s got a crush) is a bloke.
One enjoyable break from the norm, on the other hand, is Jim’s mother, whose relationship with her son is unabashedly at the heart of our hero: a doctor who works long shifts, he looks after her, rather than the other way around, in a way that’s unusual to see in any TV show, especially one for kids. It’s the kind of detail that might not work, were it not for the person voicing him.
That, of course, is Anton Yelchin. The late actor, whose career was blossoming in increasingly diverse, interesting and hugely promising ways before his tragic passing, delivers a remarkable performance. He gives Jim a witty sense of humour, a noble caring streak and a nervous vulnerability that leap off the screen. The character’s a perfect fit for him, and his well-rounded presence allows the show to shift emotional gear so smoothly. He’s also crucial to way humour is laced into everything, from the verbal (“Daylight is mine to command. Seriously, it’s mine. I’m commanding it!”) to the physical (Jim getting his sword stuck in a stone, a funny gag plus a nod to King Arthur).
Yelchin’s hugely likeable lead is an ideal window into this world, managing to share our astonishment at the show’s Troll Market, which rivals the one from Hellboy, and the thrill of an ordinary kid being able to go toe-to-toe with a bunch of fantastic beasts. It’s that rush of adventure that will keep you coming back to Trollhunters episode after episode, a rush that extends from the lively introductory music to the cute hand-drawn end credits. The result will delight adult Guillermo del Toro fans – and is almost guaranteed to turn younger viewers into fans too.
All episodes of Trollhunters are available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.