Sunday, May 3, 2015

Netflix Picks: Trollhunter

Posted By on Sun, May 3, 2015 at 8:07 AM

click to enlarge SCREENSHOT
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Here's the problem with Harry Potter taking place in merry ol' England: as soon as the internet gets popular, magic becomes impossible to keep secret. Think of André Ørvedal's 2010 film Trollhunter as the story of the first muggles to film an exposé on magic in England. Yes, it's a found-footage movie, but it's shot just smoothly enough. Forget the myriad myths of England, though; we're going to Norway, and we're hunting trolls.

Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and Kalle the cameraman (Tomas Alf Larsen) are students at Volda College, known for its film program. They're trying to do a short documentary on a rumored bear poacher, Hans (Norwegian comedian Otto Jespersen). He brushes them off a few times, but they manage to track him to a campground, then into the woods. Leaving their car when the road gets too thin, pursuing him on foot until they find him running from a troll, all four flee for their lives.

They make it to Hans' jeep, but not unscathed – Thomas was bitten by the troll but Hans tends to his wound. Hans ultimately agrees to let the group film his work; they just have to do exactly what he says, which involves bathing in a freezing river followed by a wipe-down with concentrated troll stench.

He agrees to lure a sickened troll toward the students' camera. But he finds a much larger troll, a Tosserlad, which chases them into the woods. They lead it back to Hans' jeep, where he blasts it with UV lights, turning it to stone. After all, sunlight turns trolls to stone when it doesn't make them explode.

Hans explains that he works for the government's Troll Security Service. It's a parks and wildlife-type job: he kills trolls that threaten humans and keeps the rest safe and well in their territory. It's a dirty job with a bad benefits package, and Hans is tired of it.

After he demolishes the stone troll, his bureaucratic boss, Finn (Hans Morten Hansen, another Norwegian comedian) shows up, followed by a crew of Polish bear smugglers in a painter's van, in one of the movie's funnier scenes. The government disguises troll incidents as bear attacks to keep the public calm, so Finn is furious when he sees a camera crew with Hans. But Hans is concerned about the number of recent troll incidents – they rarely leave their territory — and he wants to know what's going on. 

The four track troll after troll in search of answers. The students get more involved in Hans' cause, calling him a national hero more than once. Ultimately, Hans finds out that the trolls have rabies – meaning Thomas is also infecteded. Hans traces the outbreak back to a Jotnar, a 200-foot-tall troll that lives in the mountains. He has been spending most of the movie avoiding entering troll territory; the last time his job forced him to enter their space, the government had him exterminating trolls to make way for a new road system, a mark of guilt he has carried for decades. After it flips his jeep, Hans turns the Jotnar to stone, then walks off into the cold to die, leaving the students to flee on foot as Finn and his goons arrive to confiscate their tapes. The movie ends with Thomas hailing a semi truck as the tape cuts out.

Part of the film's appeal is its sense of humor, which is as dry as a packet of silica gel. Hans says life isn't like fairy tales just a few scenes before he ties three billy goats on top of a bridge to lure a troll out. And all of the nonsense they use to explain troll biology is rich and hilarious. (Trolls can live over a thousand years, and as they grow older, they sometimes grow additional heads, which they use to attract mates.) Ørvedal is not afraid to double down on silly.

More importantly, the silliness doesn't get in the way of a well-told dramatic story. Trollhunter doesn't sacrifice a solid narrative or good pacing just to get a few wisecracks in. Though Jespersen is known for his stand-up comedy and his work as a TV host, he pulls off a great performance as Hans. Hansen makes a good sort-of villain, playing bureaucrat to the hilt, again despite his comedic background. And though the movie was made on a budget, the trolls blend in with the world around them, sometimes to an unsettling degree.

As a bonus, the camerawork is fantastic. Despite being found footage, the shots are smooth and deliberate, with any shaky-cam being understated enough that the action still reads well. The frequent sharp cuts are used to pace the film and keep things moving, even before the action ramps up.

No film is perfect, though, and if Trollhunter has an issue, it's the cultural boundary. Though most of the troll folklore is explained, some of the movie relies on the audience being familiar with Norwegian culture. Most prominent, the trolls' ability to smell Christian blood is accepted mythology in Norway, which has a mostly atheistic/agnostic population. And there's a fairy tale about a troll and an eating contest that didn't cross the pond either. (Though I think most Americans have heard The Three Billy Goats Gruff.) But the movie works fine without the little cultural artifacts.

Trollhunter is not the best movie ever made, but everything it gets right puts Hollywood to shame. On a $3.5 million budget, this movie got a hell of a lot done. And the day Hollywood makes a movie as good as this with comedians, TV hosts and unknown actors, I'll sell a kidney.

Trollhunter is a damn fun movie – and unlike everything else I've reviewed in this column so far, it's PG-13. Grab the popcorn and enjoy a great movie night.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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