That TrollHunter is the best film I’ve ever seen in the whole “found footage” genre isn’t really saying much, since I usually lump that style of filmmaking in with hangnails and stubbed toes—minor annoyances that pop up from time to time, but which I could gladly do without. The genre as a whole strikes me as lazy filmmaking for the sake of a shoestring budget. No style or craftsmanship is utilized, just a lot of indiscriminate handheld camerawork and shaky plotting for the sake of hokey realism and a supposed amount of cleverness. That TrollHunter falls into these same traps but yet remains entertaining and engaging is a testament to its sly ingenuity and playfulness, not to mention the intangible likabilty the film carries. But at the same time, the film manages to leave an aftertaste—due to the limitations of its chosen style of filmmaking—of what it could’ve been.
The movie starts with a group of Norwegian student filmmakers gathering footage for what appears to be a documentary on bear hunters. There are some strange goings on in the countryside, with reports of people being murdered by bears and an apparent poacher (Norwegian comedian Otto Jespersen) roaming around offing them. Since oversight of the bear population is enforced by the government, the students run off to confront this poacher and get some answers. The answers they do get, however, are stranger than they imagined, as they soon find out that the poacher is actually Hans, a government agent in charge of hunting down rogue trolls, who aren’t simply the stuff of fairy tales, but rather living, breathing creatures kept under strict control. Hans agrees to let his work be filmed for the completely understandable reason that he hates his job and wants out.
The film then becomes a series of encounters with various and sundry trolls—three-headed trolls, cave-dwelling trolls, 200-foot-tall trolls. Thankfully, they’re not hidden off screen all that much, like the monsters in other found-footage films like Paranormal Activity (2007) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). This also means things happen and we don’t get stuck with haunted pool-cleaning machines or malevolent tents. The trolls themselves are the film’s highpoint, each breed having its own personalities and looks. They’re animated in a kind of goofy, yet threatening way (think sinister Muppets), yet feel totally solid and believable inside the reality of the film. Plus, they’re actually memorable monsters, something so many filmmakers (yes, this means you, J.J. Abrams) seem to muck up.
A lot of the film deals in the post-modern updating of trolls, based on their legendary status in Norwegian fairy tales. The hardboiled Hans is a fount of facts on the creatures, telling us of their ability to smell the blood of Christians (which eventually leads to the film’s best bit, with the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”) and their sensitivity to sunlight. Hans is also what keeps the film moving, since he’s the only character that’s given any true personality. As his background is deftly shaded in—like his suggested relationship with a veterinarian—we learn more and more about the man and his world-weariness. This is what separates TrollHunter from the mess of other found footage flicks—the characters aren’t whiny or idiotic, and we’re not rooting for the hidden evil lurking just out of frame to off them all before the second reel.
There is some shrewd filmmaking going on here—a little surprising considering all the hype and bluster that usually goes along with these types of films—and there’s a lot to be admired. The pity is that TrollHunter is nevertheless a film stuck in the tropes of the found-footage genre, and one that—even down to its cliffhanger ending—is still at the mercy of that genre’s flaws and conventions. It’s worth a watch for horror and fantasy fans, but it could’ve been so much more. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of creature terror.