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The Fashionably Late Review: Trollhunter

October 12, 2011

The “found footage” style of filmmaking is getting a tad long in the tooth. Its most successful endeavors have been films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, but other films have not fared so well. That doesn’t mean great things can’t be accomplished with the genre. Fortunately, Trollhunter pretty much nails it.

Trollhunter movie poster2010’s Trollhunter is about three Norwegian students making a film about bear poaching. Very early in their project they start following the mysterious “Hans,” a suspected poacher, and eventually learn that he is in fact a troll hunter. Yes, apparently trolls do exist, and there is a shadowy government agency (the Troll Security Service, naturally) charged with monitoring troll activity in Norway and eliminating trolls when they leave their territory or become a nuisance to humans.

Taking a cue from Cloverfield, the movie opens with some enigmatic text explaining how the footage was obtained and how its authenticity cannot be confirmed and blah-blah-blah. Frankly, I could have done without this ersatz exposition. There’s no need to fart a pungent cloud of mystery all over the proceedings; let the “footage” speak for itself. Regardless of this one initial misstep, Trollhunter entertains solidly for the remainder of its 103-minute running time.

The students, documentarian Thomas, sound recordist Johanna, and cameraman Kalle smell the proverbial rat as they document the official investigation into a series of (what are assumed to be) bear attacks and decide to follow Hans’ beat up Land Rover across the ridiculously picturesque Norwegian countryside in the hopes of getting an interview. Naturally, Hans is cagey and dismisses them at first. Only when they follow him into the woods at night and see him hunting down a troll does he agree to let them document his work.

The story manages to make the existence of trolls believable by both confirming and debunking the various troll myths we know from childhood stories. Yes, trolls like dark places. Yes, bright light turns them to stone (or makes them explode. This is later explained scientifically and sensibly by a veterinarian who works with Hans.) No, they don’t all have three heads, and the ones that do really only have one functioning head. No, they don’t speak; in fact, according to Hans they are simple, mammalian predators who “eat, shit, and reproduce.” The students’ reactions are appropriately incredulous at first, and later they begin to ask more and more questions of Hans, trying to understand the various troll species, their physical traits and habits. There are four major encounters with trolls throughout the film. The trolls themselves are rendered effectively by CGI, assisted by the inherent fuzziness and shakiness of the documentary-style footage.

Trollhunter‘s presentation belies its low-budget, indie blood. It is no less effective at storytelling than J.J. Abrams’ blockbusting Cloverfield. In fact, I would say that Cloverfield suffered from too much character development (and yes, I would argue that there is such a thing.) Trollhunter knows it is about a guy who hunts trolls, not a bunch of impossibly good-looking, appropriately multi-ethnic film students. Of all the characters in Trollhunter, the audience learns the most about Hans himself. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Hans would suddenly agree to let these kids film his work. But eventually it is revealed that he is world-weary; tired of doing a job that is so thankless he can’t even tell anybody about it. He gets little credit for saving human lives, is often ordered to slaughter entire families of trolls, and has to deal with government bureaucrats who are more concerned with keeping a secret than with the realities of doing this kind of work.

There is talk of an Americanized, Hollywood remake of this under-the-radar hit. I’m not the kind of person to dismiss such ideas out of hand, even if I do find them a tad unnecessary, but it’s hard to imagine an American director necessarily doing any better. The Norwegian version of Trollhunter does a fine job of telling the story. However, recent films like Let Me In, itself a remake of the Swedish modern-vampire thriller Let the Right One In, have shown that a remake needn’t suck. I’ll withhold judgment on any remake of Trollhunter until I see it (if it happens at all in notoriously fickle Hollywood). But I’m happy to say the original was quite satisfying.

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