By Bill Chaisson
I like Guillermo del Toro’s films, but I am not inclined to watch most of them because most of them are horror films. I loved his “Hellboy” movies and that was brought home to me as I watched the recent reboot and walked out of the theater during the Mexican wrestling scene, which I found pointlessly grotesque. Del Toro can be grotesque, but it never seems pointless.
Until recently my only other experience with the Mexican director’s work was “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a 2006 Spanish film that starred a teenage Ivana Baquero. Baquero can also be seen in the Netflix telenovela “High Seas” (reviewed in the July 20 Eagle Times) as Eva Villaneuve, a Spanish-language murder mystery that ended its first season with a very macabre and del Toro-esque twist.
Imagine my delight when I discovered recently that del Toro is making cartoons. I first noticed “3Below: Tales of Arcadia,” which is a science-fiction story about two young alien royals who crash land on Earth with their somewhat overbearing protector and a very toothy pet something-or-other. I watched several episodes of this series, which is in the computer-generated style that Pixar brought to the big screen. These 24-minute Dreamworks-created cartoons are flatter than the Pixar films, but they are also more riotously colorful. Furthermore, the exaggeration of physique harkens back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons and lends an absurd tone to the visual comedy.
Early episodes take place on their home planet where a militaristic putsch overthrows their parents’ regime. This portrayal of an evil and inhumane force threatening good people is a common theme in del Toro creations. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which del Toro also wrote, was set during the Nazi occupation of Spain in the 1940s and even the Hellboy story has roots in an alternative Nazi history. His “Pacific Rim” is a story about inter-dimensional monsters trying to take over the world. Most recently his multi-award-winning “Shape of Water” was about an aquatic creature being held captive and subjected to experiments.
Several episodes into the series I was jolted into awareness that “3Below” was part of a larger project and is indeed the second part of a planned trilogy called “Tales of Arcadia.” Arcadia is a somewhat Spielbergian suburb set in a generically Western environment — flood control channels are a big part of the landscape — and its blandness makes the usual joke common in Hollywood about the weirdest things happening in the most unlikely setting.
In the ninth episode of “3Below” you meet teenage Jim Lake Jr. Lake is unmistakably a hero with his own backstory and indeed that story would be “Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia,” also available for streaming. “Trollhunters” premiered in 2016, and “3Below” began in 2018. The final part of the trilogy, “Wizards,” will begin later this year.
So, I put “3Below” on hold and began watching “Trollhunters.” I also did a little reading about the series and del Toro’s conception of it. It was originally meant to be a live-action film, but the cost proved to be prohibitive and he released a book instead, which was successful and led to the animated series.
Del Toro is in his 50s and grew up watching animated series like “Jonny Quest.” These animated series of the 1960s and early ‘70s featured heroes (and a few heroines) who were good in an unadulterated way. Today’s protagonists are often somehow flawed or even anti-heroic because in this cynical era everyone is seen as weak-willed, selfish and a bit pre-occupied and “heroes” are only less so. In the world of comics, it is arguable that “Spider-Man” initiated this trend in 1962, but Saturday-morning comics persisted in having “good boy” heroes into the 1970s, although the likes of “Scooby-Doo” did a lot to overturn that.
Apparently, del Toro had a hard time getting his voice actor, the late Anton Yelchin, to understand the thorough-going goodness of Jim Lake. Yelchin, born in Russia in 1989, and reared in southern California, knew only about latter-day flawed heroics, but del Toro eventually got through to him.
The basics of the “Trollhunters” story are familiar: fatherless boy with distracted, over-worked mother, a bright student, but not an over-achiever and with a trusty best friend, Toby Domzalski, who doesn’t have a cool bone in his body and lives with his grandmother. Jim is 15 years old at the start of the series and pines for the attention of Claire, a smart, popular and together classmate. There is a bully, of course, named Steve Palchuk, and also Eli Pepperjack, who is what they call in opera a “fifth business,” a character who doesn’t have major role per se but manages to show up at crucial moments to help the plot along and to react to outrageous events. Pepperjack is what initially ties “3Below” to “Trollhunters,” because it is he who sees that space ship crash land. It turns into a suburban house on his newspaper route and he tries to sell the new residents a subscription.
These cartoons are aimed primarily at kids, as the protagonists are all teenagers and the adults are either nearly silent (Claire’s parents), clueless (Jim’s mom), or evil. Jim’s history teacher turns out to be a changeling, an “impure” and evil troll. But there are jokes and references regularly that adults will get and laugh at. Many of these are supplied by Blinky, Jim’s troll mentor and voiced by the inimitable Kelsey Grammer.