The world is full of mysteries. Places unvisited, wonders unseen. As much as human arrogance posits the idea we've seen everything and are just improving on concepts understood, the reality of existence is that there are hundreds of millions of things that we haven't discovered or haven't even begun to figure out. We're blind out there, grasping at a grandiosity that's more expansive than our minds can really comprehend. Parts of the world bemoan an ancientness that confounds us-Stonehenge, Easter Island, Giza-all of them harbor secrets we can only guess at, crafted out of minds more attuned to the magic song of the natural world than ours, befouled by modernity and detachment. We simply can't imagine the primeval anymore. "Trollhunter" is as much a refutation of that idea as it is a lament for its truth; while on the one hand the film marvels at fairy tales come to life, it also examines the sadness resulting from our inability to really appreciate the wonder of those stories.
"Trollhunter" purports to be a truth of its own; the opening credits posit the conceit that what we're about to view is found footage released by the Norwegian government as a public service. What we're to do with it, how it's to shape the direction of the future, is a matter left to the viewer. The most immediate problem is your personal choice to believe what you're seeing. The film follows a group of university students making a documentary film about bear poaching in the Norwegian wilds. Fiercely regulated by the government, bear hunting is a practice left to a few licensed professionals; rogue activity in decreasing populations is something of a potential ecological crisis. Believing they've found the man responsible, a gruff and tired nomadic loner named Hans (Otto Jesperson), the students pursue him relentlessly; following him on a midnight outing results in a chaotic chase through the Norwegian woods culminating in the destruction of the students' car by some sort of creature, leaving the kids exasperated and bewildered. After giving them a lift, Hans intentionally lets slip what he's really after: trolls. He allows the students to film his hunts provided they make the footage readily available and do whatever he says; the intrigue proves impossible to resist, and so begins a descent into Norwegian mythology and breathless unbelievability.
"Trollhunter" takes an obvious aesthetic cue from "The Blair Witch Project"; shaky handheld cameras and a faux cinema verite style make the picture seem lower budget than it really is, as well as lending it a sense of authenticity. But where "Blair Witch" exacted thrills from little more than suggestion, "Trollhunter" rolls out its titular fiends in a veritable parade of aplomb. Trolls are encountered quickly and without much hunting at all, tromping through woods and creeks and bearing all to a wide-eyed group of jaded college-age intellectuals. It's as though the trolls are a remnant of what gets lost when we reach a certain age, a reminder of the awesome power of imagination and an open mind. Ovredal never treats the trolls as anything less than magical; even as Hans rattles off their different species and bemoans their pitiful intelligence the trolls' depiction practically demands a belief in that missing magic that birthed them so long ago. They are ancient, yes, but they're creatures like any other in Hans' (and the government's) mind, more capable of being nuisances than wondrous sights to behold. The incompatability of the trolls with the modern world is one of the film's major themes; it's somewhat sad to see Hans so indifferent to the implausability of the creatures he's tasked with hunting down but at the same time it's realistic. You would get tired of trailing giant, smelly monsters for 30 years too. "I'm so sick of this crap," Hans mutters from beneath a makeshift suit of armor as he prepares to attempt drawing a blood sample from a rabid Ringlefinch. It's a beautiful moment because it so fully captures exactly what "Trollhunter" is about-the brutality of modern life grinding down the last true moments of magic floating free in the world.
Social criticism aside, "Trollhunter" is a rollicking piece of filmmaking. Ovredal's direction veers perfectly between documentary drolldom and massive spectacle whenever a troll is on the screen. It's difficult not to feel dwarfed during the final sequences, when the team encounters a giant (200 some feet tall) Jotnar troll roaming the barren windswept mountains of Norway's more forgotten regions. It feels like you're in the presence of something ancient and removed and totally beyond what you know; it seems like the gates of Valhalla can't really be that far off. Perspective is the film's greatest strength, and Ovredal exploits it whenever possible, showcasing the incredible coolness and weirdness of his creatures struggling to survive in a world they no longer belong in. The photography is as gorgeous as you'd expect, capturing the wilds of Norway in lush and subdued tones of green and blue, showing a world removed from total modern assimilation despite its ever-creeping onset. The landscapes feel old, haunted and flooded with myths and magicks. Jesperson is wonderful as Hans, coming off as both tired of his life and sensitive to the fact that trolls are just animals attempting to survive as they always have. Hans takes no joy in exterminating them; it's just a job like any other (or not, depending on how ingrained into modernity you've become.) The students, on the other hand, never really seem to grasp what they've uncovered, taking it all in without any real contemplation. The film moves at a fairly breakneck pace but their reactions still seem vaguely inappropriate, without the right amount of deference to legend or respect for the sights they've born witness to. It would probably be difficult to accept, yes, but the sheer majesty of the Jotnar troll should inspire at least some sort of meekness; even i felt it a little just watching it. If that's part of Ovredal's goal, depicting modern malaise, then he's extraordinarily successful in achieving it.
As cool as "Trollhunter" is, it's far from perfect. The plotline concerning the government cover-up is pretty thinly drawn, and aside from Hans there aren't very many strong characters other than the assorted trolls. Humorous asides concerning bear poaching and the difficulty of acquiring bear carcasses indigenous to Norway are funny but ultimately detract from the deeper message of the film. Ovredal needs to choose exactly what he wants his film to be-a layered meditation or blockbuster entertainment-because it isn't adept enough to be both. For me the enormity of the message (and the trolls that present it) makes me wish Ovredal had gone a little more serious with the work but hey, these are fairy tales bought to life. Being able to see that life, a potent mixture of mythology and history coming together, is more than worth the price of admission. The question of authenticity is all but done away with the moment the first troll lumbers into view; this is a work of high fantasy for those who haven't forgotten just how engrossing the surreal and the impossible can be. Seriously creative and seriously fun.