Directed by André Øvredal
Starring: Otto Jespersen, Robert Stoltenberg, Johanna Mørck
MPAA: PG-13 – For Some Sequences of Creature Terror]
Trollhunter feels like one of those movies that I should be really liking, but just ended up not really getting into. You see, when you think of foreign movies, you’d mostly think of artsy-fartsy French films, cheesy Jackie Chan/Bruce Lee kung-fu movies from China, even cheesier Tony Jaa martial arts movies from Thailand, and basically all of Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish work. Little do a lot of people know, though, that the foreign film market isn’t exclusively just for those types of movies. Korea has a lot of crime and revenge dramas, France has a series of films dedicated to parkour action, most particularly Oldboy and it amazes me how many mainstream American film audiences have never even heard of Italy’s Frederico Fellini.
The point is, we haven’t seen Norway churn out anything too special, but director André Øvredal has decided that he wanted to make a mockumentary blockbuster monster flick, and while we’ve seen plenty of mockumentaries and monster movies from other countries (The [REC] series from Spain is a notable example), none of them have really been on the same technical scale that Trollhunter has achieved.
In that regard, I respect the movie a great deal. It’s refreshing to see what other film-makers from across the pond can do with CG effects, and on a technical level, Trollhunter really is a marvel. The fact that a movie with such a low budget can bring out some very impressive effects involving gigantic trolls is a feat to watch. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems riddling the experience that keep it from greatness.
Trollhunter is the “found footage” of three missing college students who were planning to shoot a documentary about a bear poacher named Hans. If you haven’t read the title yet, or are just too dumb to properly reason things in your head, Hans is not a bear poacher in the slightest. Hans is actually a troll hunter who’s been hired by the government (well aware that trolls exist) to get rid of the trolls that step out of their designated boundaries.
While Hans is reluctant to let the kids document him at first, he eventually remembers how crappy his job actually is, and would like to do something different for a change. So he lets the kids tag along on a huge road trip across Norway to go hunting for some trolls.
There’s a lot to admire in Trollhunter other than the impressively low-budget CG. The film gains an advantage of being shot in Norway, which lends for a beautiful looking movie, even when the cinematography is purposefully amateurish.
The film also has a sense of humor. The entire production places its tongue firmly in cheek while still playing plenty of things straight and deadpan. Most of the satire comes from Hans’s partners who have to cover-up his Trollhunting mayhem by dropping dead bears off in the middle of the woods and placing fake tracks, most of which are noticed to be fake by even the most normal bystanders.
It becomes rather clear that writer/director André Øvredal had a lot of fun playing with the Nordic mythology of trolls and adapting it into the modern world, mostly by blending the fantastical elements of the mythology with scientific realism. Examples: Trolls turn into stone (or explode, if they’re younger) when sunlight hits them, so Hans’s main weapon is a huge cannon-looking weapon with a giant UV light on it. A veterinarian who specializes in trolls even explains why they turn to stone in the sunlight, which originates from a lack of Vitamin D in their bodies. And yes, Trolls apparently can smell the blood of a Christian man, so only Atheists are allowed on the journey.
Every troll encounter also feels different, which helps the film not feel monotonous or repetitive. There’s a variety of different trolls with their own characteristics (There’s one with three heads, one that likes to travel in packs), and plenty of different set-pieces that make them stand-out from each other. The first one is a frantic chase through the forests, while the second one has Hans wearing an improvised Iron Man suit to protect him from an up-close encounter.
Otto Jespersen, a famous comedian in Norway, plays the titular trollhunter Hans completely straight, taking a kind of goofy premise and making it believable and fun to watch. Seeing a slayer of gigantic and fantastical beings such as trolls acting incredibly non-chalant and bored with his job lends for a heaping dose of personality that helps the film stand out. It’s such an interesting character, and we really want to learn more about him…but, the film doesn’t necessarily focus on him.
Now, here’s where the problems come in–or in this case, the problem: Every single thing I disliked about the movie completely stems from the filmmakers’ decision to shoot it mockumentary style. Not only does it add pretty much bugger-all to the movie, it actually detracts from it a great deal.
We really do want to learn more about Hans, but because it’s not from his perspective, we’re stuck with a detached view that doesn’t allow us to truly sympathize. There are plenty of What Happened To The Mouse moments that I can see leading into some interesting back-stories, but unfortunately, are never brought up again. There’s a quick shot in which the camera spies on Hans hugging the troll veterinarian, which suggests a relationship bubbling under the surface, but it’s never brought up again and we’re left to ponder what exactly is going on between them.
Then there’s the fact that the documentary crew has to tag along with every single scene. Now, I know that having characters acting as surrogates for the audience, completely new to the things playing out in the movie, is an effective way of fleshing out the mythology and introducing all the rules of the world. What isn’t effective is that each of the three college kids are a bunch of twat-monkeys with absolutely zero personality.
It always felt like they were intruding on Hans’s work, making things worse for him, rather than actually doing anything special and helpful other than filming his escapades. They felt more annoying than anything else, and not in an endearing way. This wouldn’t be a problem if they actually had more than one dimension to them, allowing for some playful character banter, but alas, it was not meant to be. The documentary characters are so cardboard that they are literally expendable. Without spoiling anything, the cinematographer leaves the project due to his last traumatizing encounter with the trolls, so they pretty much hire a new camera-person to replace him, and there is literally zero-difference, other than being able to crack an admittedly clever joke on whether a troll could also smell Muslims as well as Christians.
Now, as cool as the troll encounters are, it would be even cooler if we knew what the fuck was going on and the camera wasn’t flailing around. Now, I’m going to be the first to defend mockumentary films, but they only work under the right circumstances. Films such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity effectively used the format to build a more realistic atmosphere that brings the terror of what’s going on much closer. Cloverfield did this as well, but rather than using it to highlight creeping dread, it was used to leave viewers right at the heart of a huge storm that felt incredibly intense and heart-pounding. And one thing that all three of those movies have in common is that they used the style to not show anything on the monster/witch/ghost/demon/whatever.
Trollhunter is a movie that benefits from showing you the monsters. Not only are the effects impressive, but a lot of the action is actually well-staged, or at least would be well-staged if it was well-shot. The climax in particular should’ve been cooler than it actually was because it involves a gigantic, 200-foot tall troll that can ruin your day in a matter of seconds. And while there is one really sweet moment in which they have to drive the van directly below the hulking beast, because the movie is shot from inside the car, we don’t have a good sense of place or even a good sense of how huge the giant troll is when it’s up close to you.
However, the most bullshit tactic that has come out of their decision to film it mockumentary style is that every mock-doc apparently needs an abrupt, unresolved, ambiguous ending that, in Trollhunter‘s case, is so out of place and so unnecessary that it almost ruined any good thoughts I had of the film. Several plot threads are left hanging, we never see what happens to Hans after his final bout with the giant troll, we never know what happened to the college students (Though in that case, it was probably for the better); we just get a black screen explaining what may or may not have happened and a cut to credits.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on the movie. Perhaps I should be reviewing it for what it is rather than what I wanted it to be. I can understand that they still had to film it at a low budget, and most of it went to getting the special effects and the famous Norwegian comedian for the lead role, and that perhaps they shot it that way because they couldn’t get a professional cinematographer or professional equipment for more traditional action-movie blockbuster angles. Director André Øvredal was really resourceful in making this movie, there’s still a lot to admire, but I just wanted more of Hans doing awesome troll stuff, and instead of more of that, we got more shaky-cam action and needless side characters.
Final Verdict: There’s a lot to admire about Trollhunter. For a low-budget film, the special effects are really impressive, Otto Jespersen is fun and captivating in the lead role of Hans, and there’s lots of fun tidbits about Nordic troll mythology that you don’t normally see in American films. If the filmmakers just decided to focus more on all those good things, rather than keeping a detached perspective of the matter, axe out the unnecessary characters, shoot the film in a way that highlights the impressive effects and troll encounters more, and allow an ending with satisfying character and plot resolution, Trollhunter would’ve been much better. As it stands, it’s an enjoyable, but deeply flawed experience.
That is all. See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to troll some stupid YouTube commenters. TROLLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL.