Photo Cred: (1) | Updated: 4/29/2019
This was one of three film analysis papers I wrote in college at the Colorado Film School and because I enjoyed writing them so much, I decided to upload all three here on my blog. The first one was The Dark Knight: A Scene Analysis, there is this one you’re reading now, and then the last one is called Causation, Karma, and Kung Fu: Dragon (2011) Film Analysis. I wrote this in one of my favorite classes, Contemporary Global Cinema, and this was a lecture style class on foreign cinema that was taught by the always down-to-earth Andrew Houston. It was originally published on October 5th of 2016, but this is an updated version of the original paper. With that said, here is my film analysis of Trollhunter (2010):
Although there are many films one could analyze concerning foreign cinema, I have chosen to critically analyze the cult-favorite Trollhunter, which became an international hit essentially overnight. But why did such an obscure, Norwegian film become the hit that it was and still is years after its initial release date? How has it managed to remain on Netflix since September 23rd, 2011 and has been available all these years (2)? Let’s figure it out by starting from the very beginning with the concept itself, namely trolls.
André Øvredal, who wrote and directed Trollhunter, is quoted saying that the idea came to him as far back as 1999 (3) when he conceptualized and came up with the idea of what he would want to make a feature film about: a guy that hunts trolls. Then in 2005, Øvredal revisited his idea and began to develop it into the film he always wanted to create as he wrote for several years before anything ever got off the ground. Once production was done and the film was made, it took the world by storm. Along with this craze came all sorts of critics giving Øvredal some well-earned praise on an international scale. From there, the concept became a cinematic hallmark of Norway and a call back to Norway’s heyday as the film is as popular as ever in its native land. Yet the question remains: why did Trollhunter do so well? How did it resonate globally with so many people that it grossed 1.5 times its budget in a country not known for large scale blockbusters (4)?
How Did Trollhunter Become A Hit?
Is it perhaps that a movie of this nature has never been made? Before assuming such a bold proposition, let’s look at the facts. The film is constructed in a found-footage, mockumentary style with a satirical edge that presents the film to Norwegians as comedic, while international audiences believing it to be an action thriller. A strange and perplexing effect as I, along with other American audiences, noted in first and second viewings. At first viewing, I thought it to be a well-crafted fantasy, action thriller that focused on the mythology of trolls. On second viewing and the viewings proceeding the second one, I found it to be extremely funny and brilliant, with a sense of wit to it.
It could be received so well due to its absolute originality, in that it hearkens back to the film language of The Blair Witch Project (1999). But instead of attempting realism, this film uses that method to mock its subject matter subtly and other shaky-cam made movies in the process. When The Blair Witch Project came out, audiences flocked to theaters to catch a glimpse of the once-in-a-lifetime experience that that film marketed itself to be. The public was on a buzz because for a small amount of time, people truly believed that The Blair Witch Project was actually a documentary and not a hoax. Did this same effect happen to viewers of Trollhunter?
Possibly, but not probably due to the vast suspension of belief one must take as the viewer to go along with the film’s preposterous plot of a conspiracy of troll sightings in Norway’s wastelands. When the film premiered at Sundance during one of the Park City midnight premieres, there was a veil of mystery as all attendees that saw this movie had no idea what was going to appear as it was a mystery screening. Not a soul knew what was coming or playing until the movie’s end credits rolled.
This may have affected the perception of the first initial audience at Sundance as there were a lot of glowing reviews right out the gate, especially in Norway. Even Øvredal had this thinking when he notes, “I think that the sense of humor wouldn’t come through if you shot it as a regular film.” Nevertheless, while this structure for the film and the hype surrounding it may be the reason, I would argue it is only part of this puzzle and was not the primary reason as to why it was internationally acclaimed.
Maybe it is the cast, which consists largely of comedians playing serious roles, including Otto Jespersen who is known as the biggest comedian in Norway and Hans Morten Hansen who holds the record for the “World’s Longest Stand-Up Performance” that clocks in at 38 hours, 14 minutes. If it is the cast, then they look miscast at first glance and yet the cast works perfectly in the final cut. How did Øvredal know this was going to work? Why comedians for a dramatic actors job?
Easy, comedians usually make great dramatic actors when given the right role. From Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to Peter Sellers in Being There (1979), comedians can deliver powerfully resonating performances when the right film comes along. Øvredal is quoted saying that the actors were purposefully cast for their comedic abilities, especially Jespersen in multiple interviews for the press tour, in order to add a layer of humor to the final product.
The final result? A film that is littered with dichotomies that should not work, but do. As mentioned earlier, it is filmed as a documentary in the found-footage subgenre, yet mocks such methods and is therefore a found-footage mockumentary. It is jam-packed with comedians in very serious roles who add both wonder and wit, yet never break character during the movie. Adding to those factors, is how seriously the absolutely bonkers plot is treated, right down to the realistic production design and the overall visual aesthetic that screams realism. Yet the film also reveals an extremely mythological story at the forefront. Through the framework of nonfiction, Øvredal takes the audience through a whimsical journey into fairy tale fiction for the modern era.
Why Was This Movie Successful?
So back to square one: why was this movie so successful? We have briefly paid attention to certain variables that made this film pop out to the public eye such as its unique film language, the mysterious marketing campaign, the cast of comedians playing dramatic roles, and the various well thought out dichotomies that are fine-tuned to fit the narrative needs of the story unfolding before our eyes. I would argue that these are only effects of the true cause as to why this film was so successful. Trollhunter was and is so successful because it tells a universal, typical monsters-under-the-bed children’s story like every classic fairy tale.
From the ludicrous schemes of the higher powers that be the government holding back the truth to the fantastical creatures that lurk in the backyards of the locals in Norway, this film plays out like the imagination of a child through the perspective of adults. It represents high concept themes of corruption in government, belief in a higher power whether mythic or religious in nature, but with a humorous angle that an innocent child might have in a story like this one. Before understanding this first cause of sorts that sparked Trollhunter’s success, we must understand what exactly a children’s story is, specifically fairy tales of old.
A fairy tale is a short story told through either oral tradition or in writing of a fantastical fable that explains to children the moral truths of day-to-day life. For this film in particular, there are three main fairy tales that were strong influences for Trollhunter throughout the film: The Boy Who Had An Eating Match With A Troll, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and Soria Moria Castle. There are other references to fairy tales within the narrative of Trollhunter, but these are the main three. So if fairy tales are usually aimed at children and Trollhunter is a film that brings fairytales to light for a mostly adult audience, what is the moral truth that Øvredal is trying to show us?
After some reflection on the thematic threads of the storyline, the moral truth of Trollhunter is twofold: 1) to never stop pursuing the truth like a child never stops seeking answers from their innocent inquiries about life and 2) to not let faith fade into fiction. For now, we will look at the first moral truth before exploring the second one. How does Trollhunter present this theme of seeking to find the truth without hesitation in the movie?
The Pursuit of Truth
In actuality, that is the main plot of the film. Thomas played by Glenn Erland Tosterud, along with his friends Johanna (Johanna Mørck), Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), and somewhat Malica (Urmila Berg-Domaas) near the second half of the film are on a quest to find the truth about trolls. The movie begins with Thomas, Johanna, and Kalle searching across Norway for a lone-wolf type of bear poacher that has been illegally killing wild bears past the prescribed rate set by the government. So our three heroes embark on an unexpected journey to find this obscure poacher for a documentary they are making for a college assignment of theirs. Bottom line: they wanted to know the truth regarding the infamous bear poacher.
But once the bear poacher is found by the three students, he rejects being in their documentary and does all that he can to evade their pursuit of him. Despite the setback, they are unwilling to give up. Thomas and the three follow him to his next hunting expedition only to find out he is not a bear poacher, but a troll hunter. After this startling realization of the truth, Thomas becomes ever more adamant in understanding this newly revealed truth about the world. This pilgrimage for truth leads to Thomas and the rest of his crew in helping the troll hunter named Hans (Jespersen) expose the cover up of the troll epidemic growing insurmountably out of control in Norway’s wastelands.
Yet again, in the pursuit of truth there will always be outside forces pressuring the seeker to stop their search. Simply put, Kalle the camera operator is killed in action due to his Christian blood being detected by a pack of trolls in a cave that smell his God-filled scent. So Thomas and his crew of just Johanna and Hans hire a new Muslim camera operator named Malica, which is actually an indirect jab at Islam as they comically discuss whether trolls can smell Muslim blood.
For within this film’s mythology and Norwegian mythology all together, the reason trolls could smell the blood of Christians is because of a poor exegetical understanding of the Biblical letter of 2 Corinthians, specifically 2 Corinthians 2:14-17. This passage uses allegory for an aroma illustration to separate early Christians from the rest of the world by teaching that the blood of Christians is different than those who are not Christian. If it’s true that trolls can only smell the blood of Christians because they believe that Jesus is God (5), then from the Norwegian worldview Muslims do not believe in the same God since Trolls do not smell their blood. For trolls, Muslim blood does not give off a “sweet smelling aroma.”
Some other Norwegian sources also list a number of other reasons trolls can smell the blood of Christians. These include, but are not limited too: jealousy that the Christians that came to Norway during the Medieval Ages stole the people’s worship from trolls to worship the Christian God, trolls are some form of demonic force that has been expelled by the Christian God to live in darkness, or that they used to be humans/are humans that were never “Christianized” by the advancement of the religion during the time these fairy tales were penned. Whatever the case may be, the point being is this: trolls can smell the blood of Christians because of its sweet smelling aroma, while other religions do not have this distinct scent. Hence, the movie runs with this claim found scattered in all sorts of troll stories from times past and makes for an interesting clash of differing worldviews within certain cultural predispositions towards Christianity.
In the pursuit of truth, it is truth itself that kills Kalle because he is a Christian. In the pursuit of truth, it is Hans who allows the three students to follow him and expose this cover up. In the pursuit of truth, it is why this movie began in the first place as the faith that Thomas has, along with his crew is tested as everything that they thought to be true is false and vice versa regarding the bear killings that are directly linked to the troll sightings.
Faith Must Not Fade Into Fiction
As a child grows into adulthood, there is a period of time known as “childhood innocence” that precedes the teenage years and eventually adulthood. Like Patrick Rothfuss once wrote in The Name of the Wind, “When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.” The intended audience for the majority of fairy tales is children during this age of innocence. If Trollhunter jumps off from this precedent regarding the intended audience that has grown up, then how does childhood innocence play into the narrative strings of the story and in what way? How does the film’s version of childhood innocence fit with the idea that faith must never fade into fiction as noted above?
When our journey into the unknown world of bear poaching begins and the mystery with the poacher hunting more than the allotted amount, we find our protagonist Thomas with his companions still in this age of innocence. For they think that there is simply a bear poacher, that is Hans, who is killing more than everyone else during the hunting season. They just want to know why that is the case. Most likely presuming that it is for personal pride, sport, or something in the vein of seeking fame and fortune from the populace. Yet their innocence in this situation is challenged when confronted for the first time that this is a lie set by the government to distract people from the truth of a troll problem running rampant in Norway.
Not only that, but the stories that they were told as children take a reverse course in this film versus reality. For here in this movie, the more fantastical the story becomes, the more true it becomes. The fable that trolls can smell the blood of Christians leads to the death of Kalle because of his faith in Christ. While the more plausible in reality, the less true it becomes. Like how earlier they believed that there was a rabid bear poacher killing off the bear population leads to a government cover up of a darker kind.
In the real world, with the advancements of knowledge in various fields of study like philosophy, science, mathematics, and so forth there is the elimination of the supernatural as the likelihood of such things is relinquished to oblivion by our own exit from innocence into experience. Our belief in Santa Claus ends as our belief in logic and truth flourishes through the maturity of mankind over the years. As we understand more about how the universe we inhabit works like a series of fully-functioning gears in a sequential motion of expansion to its inevitable end.
By the end of the movie, Thomas, Johanna, and now Malica have had their innocence fade as their faith has only flourished under these extreme circumstances of troll hunting with Hans. What a poignant end to a film that follows a group of people trying to stop tire-eating, trolls. After some investigation and a little speculation regarding certain aspects of the film, we can conclude that the primary reason for the success of Trollhunter is the monsters-under-the-bed theme that explores a return to childish things that may have been forgotten by some. Something of a subconscious resurgence through the form of a cinematic experience.
From the literal monsters (trolls) hiding under a bed (government conspiracy) to teach children (the audience) an essential truth. The risk for the pursuit of truth is worth the payoff as is the firm convictions of faith we all have in a postmodern society that rejects such objective realities as false illusions. With all that said, perhaps the film is trying to evoke us to remember a time when anything was possible and nothing could stop that free thinking.
This is why the movie succeeded internationally. It reignited a sense of awe and humor into something that lay dormant for years since our own innocence faded from reality to mere fragmented memories. Imagine that. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless!