Norway’s pre-Christian history is full of fascinating stories, deeply rooted in its macabre mythology. Contemporary images of black metal church burnings and ghoulish corpse paint pale before the iniquities of its past, in which pagan magic demanded human and animal sacrifice. Scandinavian folklore also recounts stories that depose man from the top of the food chain, conjuring a greater evil. Ancient giants — trolls — were feared to roam the landscape, devouring men.
Folklorists like Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe helped to sustain these legends into the 20th century thanks to their distinct Norwegian vernacular and humor — attributes that helped spearhead a revival of the country’s national identity. This sentiment is captured in André Øvredal’s TrollHunter, the tone of which may at times elude foreign audiences completely. Fortunately, tongue-in-cheek wit and the compelling characterization of its grizzled, titular hero supersedes any endemic satire North American spectators might miss.
Composed of rough footage purportedly shot by students (headed by a posturing leader, who wants to be the next Michael Moore), this mockumentary stumbles upon a government conspiracy to cover up the country’s troll problem. What starts as an expose on bear poaching — and the tracking of a suspected ringleader, Hans (Otto Jespersen) — turns into the discovery of a secret hunting operation. It transpires that the mysterious stalker is single-handedly trying to keep Norway’s hidden troll population — who have been destroying the remote countryside — at bay. From there, Hans is joined by the three filmmakers — a real Scooby Doo ensemble — who accompany him on his nail-biting expedition.
We’re presented with several episodes captured in-between pursuits, so if you’re expecting a Cloverfield-type mock-doc that thrives on relentless action, and the horror of trolls flinging men around like sock puppets, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. At its worst, the narrative occasionally meanders in transit (often while confined to the trollmobile). When the creature confrontations arrive, however, they’re tense, and perfectly executed. Monster designs (seemingly inspired by the illustrations of Theodor Kittelsen) are a thing of strange beauty, despite Hans’ description of them as bumbling beings.
Conversations and characterization, rather than gruesome spectacle, assume central focus. At its quirky best, the film explores Hans’ oddball world. He’s in many ways the most interesting and complex part of the movie, despite its frequent political jabs. Through his admissions, we understand that Hans is an outsider on the inside of a government whitewash. He’s a disgruntled worker-turned-reluctant hero, who goes through the motions of filling out too much paperwork (clearly, troll security is not eco-friendly), while bemoaning long hours. Home offers no haven from his dangerous profession, but instead becomes a ramshackle, fur and goo-covered shrine to his adversaries — for whom he feels a simultaneous repulsion, respect, and affection.
The absurdity of TrollHunter will club you several times throughout its run time, but there’s a solemnity to its mythos that captivates. Detailing the dangers of Christian blood, recounting stories about troll babies being slaughtered under orders, or exposing a secret about Norway’s power lines, Hans’ testimonials are bizarre, but wholly engaging. It’ll be interesting to see how a US director (with an undoubtedly bigger budget) will translate the quirky, yet subtle nuances of Øvredal’s troll tale in a recently announced remake. Lacking precedent in its own – comparatively youthful – folklore, will the upcoming flick’s monsters share the wilds with homegrown beasties like Bigfoot, or inflict its primal rage on the urban jungle? However tempered by American mores, let’s hope that the Nordic chills and the eccentricities of the original survive translation.
TrollHunter will be available on Blu-ray August 23
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