I’d been looking forward to TrollHunter since seeing the trailer in August of last year… any successful film that features a classic but underutilized creature bodes well for our horror script Faeries.
There’s some originality in TrollHunter, in the form of said underutilized creature. Some good CGI, and some good pacing and structure.
But there’s also sadly a lot that’s not terribly original. And in the end, not a lot of “there” there.
First, check out the trailer:
Another found footage entry
TrollHunter is another “found footage” movie, dependent on the auto-chronicled narrative conceit, and suffering for that dependency.
It opens with the very familiar “this footage was found, we don’t know if it’s real, blah blah blah” and ends with the very familiar “that’s where the footage ends, and the kids were never seen again, blah blah blah”. No disrespect, but come on. Can we be more derivative?
Every second of footage is auto-chronicled. It takes no advantage of any of the tricks that Paranormal Activity used to expand its visual vocabulary. It suffers from the usual “whoever’s behind the camera gets no screen time and no development” problem. Its voyeuristic point-n-shoot styling is pretty limited to whatever’s in front of the camera, and fails to offer any real insight into characters and motivations.
In a nutshell, as just another found footage entry, it breaks no new ground, is actually a step back from the advances Paranormal Activity made, and lifts the most fundamental tropes (those predictable opening and closing credits) without any new twist.
So it’s dependent on the strength of its story and structure. How’s it fair?
Here’s the story:
Student filmmakers (is there any other kind?) are shooting a story on sanctioned bear hunting that helps control aggressive bears that are assumed to be responsible for recent cattle attacks. The kids end up following a mysterious (and apparently unlicensed) bear hunter with strange equipment and a stinky travel trailer.
At first he refuses to talk to them, but they follow him all over the countryside and finally he relents and reveals that he’s a troll hunter (a veterinarian to be exact) on contract with a secret government agency tasked with tracking the trolls that live in the back country, and hunting them down should they leave their territories and venture too close to civilization.
These are stupid trolls, essentially predatory animals: imagine giant bears or dinosaurs dozens of feet tall that look like people with huge noses and bad teeth. They do align with some traditional troll lore: They turn to stone in sunlight, and they can smell the blood of a Christian (and it makes them aggressive). There’s a whole scene dedicated to his asking the kids if they believe in God. Not “are you Christian” but “do you believe in God”. The kids seem confused, so he clarifies with “Are you Christian” (as though believing in God naturally equates to Christian).
Thus, it’s very important that none of the students “believe in God”. Never mind that many non-Christians also believe in God. It’s absolutely critical that Christians NOT come along.
More on that later.
The film moves along pretty quickly, and does a nice job of revealing the mysterious activities of the troll hunter. The agency is tasked with keeping the existence of trolls a secret (why? We don’t know…) and after 30 years or more on the job, and starting out very secretive as he tells the kids to stop following him around, he suddenly decides to let the kids follow him because… he’s “tired of his job” and maybe if people find out about it all, things will change.
“Tired of his job”? That’s his motivation? Really? So why not quit? What’s the motivation for revealing the entire operation? There are some mild hints at something more complex — he tells a sad story about being tasked with destroying an entire mountain population – pregnant trolls, baby trolls, all the trolls – to make room for a tunnel project — but that took place in the 1970’s at the beginning of his career. If he’s been suffering any trauma over that, it didn’t keep him from killing trolls for another 30 years. I didn’t buy it.
And the kids suffer from a lack of motivation too. Turns out their cameraman IS a Christian believer, who takes to frantically praying when he’s trapped by trolls. He’s killed in a terrible way, and save for a single quick shot of grieving, they seem unfazed in following scenes. Not a single line of “what are we going to tell people”, or “we have to call the cops”, or “his Mother’s going to kill us”. Nothing. He’s just gone. They happily discuss their new camera operator’s arrival as though the last guy had just gotten a new job somewhere.
And here’s where that “smell the blood of a Christian” thing comes back in. The kids ask the new camera op if she believes in God, and she answers “I’m a Muslim”. They check with the troll hunter (“Are Muslims okay?”) and he replies that he doesn’t really know.
But why? If his issue is Christians, the answer should be “yes, Muslims are fine”. It seems, though, that his issue is a belief in God, and if that’s the case, Muslims should be no more okay that Christians. So when he can’t speak to the safety of a Muslim, it’s a weird exchange, and it seems to infer that at the least, this core concept isn’t well understood (either by the character or the writers), or at worst, that as a Muslim she doesn’t believe in God. Which of course Muslims do. So is it Christians, or just believers, that trolls hate?
Does it matter? No. It doesn’t matter, and that’s why it’s weird that it’s a thing at all. It’s never a story point after that, there’s no mention of the trolls being able to smell her, her Musliminity doesn’t put them in any danger. It’s a non-issue. So why was it there at all? It’s a muddled and mishandled story point that’s raised as important and then just dropped.
And what about that whole government plot thing?
We’re to believe that the secret agency did away with the kids in the end, to keep the footage (and thus the trolls) a secret. Yet throughout the film the agents make no real effort to stop the filming, beyond covering the camera and saying “turn that thing off”. They don’t grab the equipment when they have the chance (and they have numerous chances), the troll hunter himself (and his workmates – another vet, and a group of Eastern European bear poachers in on the plan who cheerily demonstrate how they fake the bear attacks) pretty easily give up their secrets, and the agents don’t seem in any hurry to shut them up either, just more irritated that they’re talking. They seem to be ineffectual, bumbling bureaucrats, nothing more.
So the ending just rings false, convenient, pat. And uninspired.
The Good and The Bad
Overall the structure works, it escalates, and delivers on most of the setups. The acting is naturalistic and watchable. The pacing is good, the action sequences are exciting and entertaining, and the CGI is surprisingly convincing.
Unfortunately, in the end, the story is weak: the characters are thin, their motivations are thin, the mysterious government plot is thin. The creature design is a bit goofy – they’re scary, yet somehow comical and nonthreatening. That kind of works, and kind of doesn’t.
Should a movie about troll hunters be beholden to deep character development and motivation? Maybe not. But it should deliver on basic story that holds water and makes some sense.
Trollhunter barely – just barely – does that.
It’s an entertaining, mindless watch. Just don’t think about any of it very hard.