Irene is two. She will ask a lot for “More Pocoyo” or “more Bear,” and in the last day or two she’s started asking for “more Pah” (Kim Possible; she’s also started saying “Drakky” for “Drakken”), but the other show she’ll sometimes ask for is “More Troll.” Now, we have a running joke that Irene is secretly a film snob, and that what she really wants to watch is more Fellini or more Bergman or more Polish New Wave or what have you, so it genuinely delights me that one of her favourite shows is from the mind of Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water. (Which she has also seen, because she’s too young to notice the stuff that’s not child-appropriate.) And her five-year-old brother Simon was blown away when I showed him Del Toro at the Oscars and informed him that it was the guy who voices the dentist.
Obviously, Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia is set in a town usually referred to as Arcadia, actually the fictional Arcadia Oaks, California, which is not the same as the actual Arcadia, California, coincidentally the city where I was born. Our Hero is fifteen-year-old James Lake, Jr. (Anton Yelchin for two seasons, then Emile Hirsch after Yelchin died), son of Barbara (Amy Landecker). His father disappeared on one of his birthdays when he was a child. He’s an outstanding cook, but kind of a nobody in school. He certainly can’t get the attention of Claire Nuñez (Lexi Medrano), the popular girl he likes. His best friend is Toby Domzalski (Charlie Saxton), who is orphaned and lives with his Nana (Laraine Newman). One day, they are late for school and bike the shortcut through the canal. Where Jim finds a mysterious amulet that glows and says his name.
He has been called to be the Trollhunter. For hundreds of years, trolls have lived in Trollmarket, underneath what is now Arcadia Oaks. One troll bears the amulet, crafted by Merlin (David Bradley) to fight the forces of Gunmar (Clancy Brown). Now, changelings, including Jim’s history teacher Walter Strickler (Jonathan Hyde), are attempting to reconstruct Killahead Bridge and use the amulet of the Trollhunter to free Gunmar. Jim is the first human Trollhunter. His mentor is Blinkous “Blinky” Galadrigal (Kelsey Grammer), whose only previous protégé is known as Unkar the Unfortunate (Wallace Shawn), who survived in the job a single day. He is befriended as well by AAARRRGGHH!!! (Fred Tatasciore), formerly on Gumar’s side, and Draal (Matthew Waterson), whose father had been the previous Trollhunter and who had expected to take up the mantle himself.
Honestly, it’s three seasons with what sometimes feels like about ten seasons’ worth of plot. It does also tend to that fantasy sort of thing where you have to learn a ton of new terms—the other day, we were making jokes about changelings, and I referenced “gaggletacks,” which is the troll term for the mystical item that will force a changeling to show its true shape. You may know them as horseshoes. But that’s the joke—Jim and Toby refer to one as such, and Blinky asks in bewilderment why you would put such a valuable thing on a horse’s foot. But you have to learn about gaggletacks and Heartstones, Gumm-Gumms and Krubera.
There are also literally dozens of characters I haven’t mentioned yet. We’ve barely touched on Jim’s human life—I haven’t talked about Steve Palchuk (Steven Yeun) and the Spring Fling king or Miss Janeth (also Laraine Newman) and Romeo and Juliet. There’s a lot of his troll life left—I haven’t mentioned NotEnrique (Jimmie Wood) or Gnome Chompsky (Rodrigo Blaas) yet. There’s also the fact that troll Trollhunters have always been expected to be solitary while Jim does his best work with the help of his friends, the conflict many of the changelings feel between their appreciation of certain aspects of the human world and their determination to be better than other trolls.
I can already see a lot of you rolling your eyes, if you’re not particularly into fantasy epics. But this isn’t just a fantasy epic, for all it has aspects of it. For one thing, it’s a high school drama. Jim has to deal with bullies and classes. He cares for Claire. He takes care of his mom. He ends up having to do a bunch of stupid challenges he doesn’t care about in order to compete for king of the Spring Fling, which he also doesn’t care about. He wants a moped for his sixteenth birthday, but his mom thinks they’re unsafe.
Even better, though, is the show’s wit. You’ll have noticed Gnome Chompsky—Toby names him, because he agrees it’s the perfect name. It’s deliberate on his part. The humans make regular pop culture references; in season two, Ms. Nomura (Lauren Tom) explains the plot of Peer Gynt, an opera about trolls. The dentist is Señor Muelas, which translates to “Mr. Molars.” When Jim gains the uncanny powers of the Trollhunter, he and Toby use it to chop up phone books, because they are teenage boys.
Let’s not forget the cast, either. I’ve already mentioned several fine actors, and we aren’t done. There’s Bular, voiced by Ron Perlman. Queen Usurna is Anjelica Huston. Dictatious is Mark Hamill—fans of animation were probably wondering when he’d show up. (Season two, episode one.) Diego Luna is only on one episode as Krel, but he does star in the second show of the saga, which we’ll get to later. And that show has its own impressive voice cast. Even the people I don’t recognize from other things do fine work here.
I would also say that one of the reasons I’m really happy that Irene is getting into it is that its female characters have agency. Jim is the son of a doctor—Barbara is an ER doctor, too, working all hours, and Jim takes good care of her. Claire is the daughter of a city councilwoman. And she gains magic for herself in the second season, and arguably learns how to use it better than the person who held it originally. Ms. Nomura is pretty fierce and intelligent and cultured. Even Nana Domzalski is pretty awesome underneath her blind-and-deaf old lady exterior.
It’s of considerable relief to me that, so far, Irene has better taste than Simon. He likes the show, too, but he also likes a lot of garbage. So far, Irene does not. I’ve seen this show through at least a dozen or so times, and I still enjoy it. As any parent can tell you, that’s a great relief in a kids’ show.
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