American moviemakers may have popularized the found footage-style feature, but Norwegian director André Øvredal perfects it in Trollhunter. An exciting, dryly humorous fantasy adventure featuring great special effects, a fantastic lead performance, and convincing on-the-run camerawork that never gets so shaky it becomes a distraction, Trollhunter is solid fun from start to finish.
Three student filmmakers venture into the most isolated region of Norway on a mission to confront a notorious bear poacher, and discover that the elusive hunter's true prey is something far more extraordinary. Though Kalle, Thomas, and Johanna thought they were pursuing a criminal, after locating Hans (Otto Jespersen) with the help of some local hunters, they learn that bears are not his true target but a mere smokescreen to obscure what he's really after -- trolls. A secret government agency has been conspiring to cover up the existence of these massive monsters; however, the trolls occasionally manage to break their containment area. When that happens, it falls on Hans to capture the creatures at all costs. Trolls are highly sensitive to sunlight, and traditional weapons only make them angry. Instead of carrying a gun, Hans carries an enormous UV light capable of stopping even the fiercest of trolls dead in its tracks. The only way that humans can travel in the area undetected is to cover their bodies in a foul-smelling concoction that makes them invisible to the troll's highly developed sense of smell. Lately, the long hours and grueling work conditions have been taking their toll on Hans, so when the student filmmakers show up looking for a good story, he decides that it's time for the truth to come out, no matter what the cost. Now, if the group can just survive long enough to get their incredible footage to the outside world, they could be responsible for revealing the most impressive cryptozoological discovery in the history of humankind.
When Trollhunter first hit Norwegian screens in late 2010, some local viewers expressed doubt that the humor and references in the film would translate to a foreign audience. Fortunately their fears were unfounded; anyone who possesses a healthy sense of political skepticism and a cursory knowledge of popular fairy tales will find plenty to love as the incredulous filmmakers and their fearless subject scour the backwoods for lumbering giants. But even those who don't will be able to recognize the quality of storytelling on display here, and the fact that star Jespersen is a virtual unknown outside of his native Norway may actually serve to boost the "believability" of the film abroad. As the eponymous Trollhunter, Jespersen offers an effective mix of veteran grit and weary cynicism; not only has Hans been at this dangerous job for far too long, but he's never been properly compensated for his work, and his frustration is constantly evident in Jespersen's wonderfully deadpan performance.
However, talk as Hans might about his many experiences ridding the countryside of trolls, the film's exciting set pieces are also a primary reason that Trollhunter towers above its contemporaries. Screenwriters Øvredal and Håvard Johansen knew that in order for Trollhunter to be a success, viewers would have to believe the creatures to be real, and confrontations on a remote bridge, in an abandoned mine, and in a gorgeous pre-dawn mountain range place us directly under the trolls' massive feet as the crew runs for their lives. The trolls themselves are hideous to behold, and the filmmakers make masterful use of sound as their grunts, snorts, and growls echo through the hills. Clever use of night-vision camera mode ensures that the midnight monster hunts are never under-lit, though a shocking incident with the initial videographer opens the door for an interesting plot development that is never fully explored.
By toying with troll mythology, the screenwriters also give themselves license to get creative. A revealing conversation over a hearty breakfast affords Hans the chance to clear up some common misconceptions about the creatures, and it's here that Jespersen really makes the character his own. And repeated confrontations with Finn (Hans Morten Hansen), a government bureaucrat intent on keeping the trolls' existence a secret, add a satisfying blend of tension and humor into the mix. Though viewers in search of big scares may not find much to scream about in Trollhunter, others thirsting for a solid adventure served with a twist of lighthearted cynicism are bound enjoy the ride, and get a few hearty laughs along the way.