There’s always been a certain stigma about animated TV shows being dumb kids' entertainment, but we live in a time of Peak TV, where more and more critically acclaimed cartoons also appeal to an older audience. One of them just wrapped up its third and last season: Netflix’s Trollhunters. Where a lot of animated shows made for younger audiences focus on just being funny and tend to be kind of simple, this Guillermo del Toro show finds the right balance between kid-friendly and serious. Seriously, how many animated shows aimed towards kids feature exorcisms or implied cannibalism?
Trolls exist, goblins, gnomes, and pixies too. There are good trolls and bad trolls. The evil trolls live in a place called the “Darklands,” where they are imprisoned. The good trolls are protected by their chosen warrior, called the “Trollhunter." We follow James “Jim” Lake Jr, a 15-year-old who one day finds a mystical amulet, which grants him the mantle and powers of the Trollhunter.
There are some references to Peter Parker’s “with great power comes great responsibility” problems from Spider-Man, but the show clearly owes a lot to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. High school student with a single mom in a small town? Check. Chosen one meant to fight against dark creatures the rest of the world doesn’t know about? Check. Team consisting of the hero’s schoolmates that will help in fighting evil? Check. Mentor that prefers to read rather than fight? Check.
For the first few episodes, Trollhunters devotes most of its time to Jim relenting his mystical calling to keep some sense of normality in his life. Clancy Brown (who voices the main villain Gunmar) himself compared the show to Harry Potter in an interview with SYFY WIRE: “It starts out really young and feels like a kiddie kind of show, and the trolls aren't too scary and the stories are kind of simple.”
Like the first couple of books in the wizarding saga, del Toro’s Trollhunters appeals to a younger audience by focusing on everyday problems they can relate to, with a comedy-heavy tone underplaying the coming threads. The conflicts all revolve around Jim’s school life, like whether or not he can learn troll history and still make it in time for theater rehearsal, or how he can do his presentation for Spanish class and fight a gnome while miniaturized at the same time. The main trolls we meet are friendly and funny — hardly a surprise when Jim’s mentor is played by Kelsey Grammer — and even the school bully is taken care of rather quickly and in a humorous way.
The first season of the show is incredibly fast-paced for an animated show. There’s not a wasted moment as Jim realizes the seriousness of his new position, and the characters mature as the story gets progressively darker. Although the time span of Trollhunters isn’t clear, we get to see the main characters grow and mature as much as the boy wizard or the Air Nomad. The late great Anton Yelchin gives Jim the wide-eyed wonder of a kid, and all the worries and anxieties of a teenager with too much on his plate. He lends gravitas to the character as Jim embraces his calling as a protector, and how that means he and his loved ones will be targeted.
Now the threats from the troll world and school get intertwined, and the show becomes serialized — it also helps that the story introduced villains on both sides of Jim’s life, so every aspect of the story still has some life-threatening danger to it. Where Avatar: The Last Airbender devoted more than half of each season to side stories while building up to a serialized finale, Trollhunters goes right to the point after just a few episodes in its first season, introducing bigger villains and an ever-expanding mythology to be further developed in later episodes.
This being a del Toro story, it should not come as a surprise that Trollhunters dives deep into the horror genre — even if they still keep the occasional fart joke. A big part of the series is dedicated to an Invasion of the Body Snatchers subplot where trolls start replacing humans. In Season 3 alone, we get a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of two gnomes and the bone remains of a third gnome in a cage (implying cannibalism) or a recreation of that blender-kill from Gremlins. Showrunner Rodrigo Blaas, who was hired to co-direct the feature-length version of Trollhunters with del Toro, spoke to SYFY WIRE about mixing horror in a show for kids.
“We always say that you should never underestimate the kids. They accept these things better than the adults because they don’t think too much of it," Blaas said. “With that being said, we never go full horror, there’s always a balance, mostly with visual cues or some jokes by Toby that deflate the situation a bit. Like in most Amblin movies there are scary and dangerous situations, but they always have humor in them, and as kids, we bought all that without getting emotionally scarred.”
Blaas even directed an entire episode last season that pays homage to The Exorcist, yet it never loses sight of the larger story. “I loved that episode. I really wanted to recreate that shot from the poster, but it was a fine line that we followed in order to not fall into parody territory," Blaas says. "We recently had a screening with an audience, and the kids there had blankets up to their noses, but they never covered their eyes with them. That’s how I knew we did it right.”
Another element that makes the show special is the strong Latin-American influence in the town of Arcadia Oaks. Out of the only four teachers we know from Jim’s school, one teaches Spanish. Toby, one of the three main characters, is always eating tacos or burritos. Del Toro plays the local dentist. Then we have Claire Nuñez, who is one of the three main characters, whose family is very clearly Latino. Her mom is running for local government, and her dad believes no meal can be completed without chorizo. Claire starts out as the archetypical love interest, but quickly becomes not only part of the group, but arguably the strongest of the main characters. Throughout Trollhunters, we see Claire battling some demons of her own, as well as coming face to face with the series’ big baddie and coming out better than Jim. Series co-creator Blaas says the mixture of cultures was something important from the get-go:
“Guillermo is from Mexico, I am from Spain. We wanted to reflect the multicultural world that we live in today, specially in California where the show takes place,” Rodrigo says. “It was important for us to put some mixture of cultures in the show, without falling into stereotypes. That’s why we wanted Claire to be more than just a Latino character, we wanted her to be a hero in her own right — while still having strong roots, and a great recipe for guacamole.”
Just as the story gets darker and the horror influences get more noticeable, the mythology of the show deepens. To Netflix’s credit, Trollhunters is way better suited to be a TV show than a movie, as it was originally intended. The simple Campbellian story with archetypes instead of characters changes to a rich world full of detail and fleshed-out characters that feel like people instead of vague descriptions. From Season 1, we are introduced to new sub-species of trolls, which paves the way to the introduction of a vast world of different troll cities, and a long history of diverse cultures, each with legends and characters of their own.
By the third season, we follow enough characters with their own storylines that one could make the comparison with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Now that Netflix has announced not one, but two spin-off series, I just hope they don’t forget the guacamole.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.