Visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro knows a thing or two about monsters. A master of macabre, he revels in their mythology and intrigue. Whether he's on set or at home in the expertly curated Bleak House, del Toro likes to surround himself with creatures — from his deeply personal Frankenstein collection to the dozens of kaijus, demons, vampires, angels, ghosts, tooth fairies, and mythical fauns he's helped shepherd into our collective nightmares.
His latest venture into the monster realm, however, finds del Toro trading in menacing machinations for a slightly more amusing brood of beasties: trolls.
The DreamWorks-animated series Trollhunters is a heroic tale five years in the making for del Toro. The story follows ordinary teenager Jim Lake Jr. (voiced by the late Anton Yelchin) from the average suburban city of Arcadia as he discovers a magical amulet, accidentally unlocks a secret civilization of trolls, and learns that he's the first human Trollhunter in history. (No pressure or anything.) With the help of his best friend Toby (a character del Toro fashioned after himself) and his crush Claire, it's up to 15-year-old Jim to protect the good trolls from their powerful enemies — and, you know, save the world.
Based on a young adult novel that del Toro co-wrote with Daniel Kraus, Netflix's Trollhunters is both immersive and ambitious. It has clearly been influenced by everything from Arthurian legend to Norse mythology to Steven Spielberg's Amblin classics, and in many ways, it subverts the traditional Chosen One narrative by grounding its story in its teen characters.
MTV News chatted with executive producer Marc Guggenheim about bringing the series to life (all 26 episodes are available to stream on Netflix), working with del Toro, and how Yelchin influenced the character of Jim.
MTV News: Trollhunters was originally developed as a feature film, and you were brought on during that stage of production. This world is so expansive that it feels like it belongs on TV. Do you feel the same way?
Marc Guggenheim: One of the biggest challenges we had working on the feature film version was fitting all of Guillermo's big ideas into 90 minutes, to the point where a big part of the exercise was choosing which darlings we were going to kill. When Netflix bought the show as a series, it was a breath of fresh air — we suddenly had all the narrative space to tell the story we were trying to tell and to further develop it. When you watch the first 23 episodes you'll see many of the ideas from the novel represented in it in a way we wouldn't have been able to accomplish in a 90-minute movie. There's also a whole host of other characters and different types of creatures and concepts that aren't in the novel, so for us, it wasn't a challenge to expand the world. We were just thankful we had room to tell the story the way it wants to be told.
Guillermo is known for scope and scale and immersive world-building, but what I like so much about this show is that it never loses sight of the characters. Jim and Toby, and their friendship, are the heart of the story.
Guggenheim: What I'm most proud of with this show is that the characters truly evolve and change. The characters that you meet in Episode 1 are really different people by the time you get to Episode 23. That's a very unusual thing in a “family show.” Usually in a family show your protagonists pretty much stay the same, consistency is usually the goal. But we really embraced the idea of giving these characters an emotional journey to go on and let them evolve and change.
What about something like a traditional Chosen One narrative, which I think is pretty commonplace in young adult fiction these days — how do you subvert that?
Guggenheim: I think what Jim kind of proves himself to be is the most unconventional Chosen One you could imagine. Normally, the Chosen One is someone who has inherited this mantle, or has been chosen, and they fully embrace it. They charge off into adventure without any sort of self-doubt. The thing about Jim is that he reacts to inheriting the mantle of Trollhunter the way I think most people would react, which is, “I'm not so sure I should be the one doing this.” He's constantly fighting that self-doubt. One of the things that is a trick with all Chosen One narratives is it's hard to make a Chosen One story relatable, because how many of us are the Chosen One? But something we all can relate to is feeling that we're either overqualified or a mistake has been made or we're not up to the challenge that has been placed before us. So even though Jim is in a very unusual situation, he has a very universal reaction to it.
And then there's Toby, Jim's best friend who's just here for the tacos. I can personally relate to that.
Guggenheim: Toby is so much fun. He's the character who always threatened to steal the show. In the early-going the challenge was, how do we let Toby be as fun as he is but at the same time not let him steal the spotlight away from the other characters? That's a quality problem, when you have a character who looms that large — that's a wonderful problem to have.
I know Guillermo relates to Toby quite a bit. Is there a character you feel a particular connection to?
Guggenheim: I feel particularly connected with Blinky [voiced by Kelsey Grammer], in part because he and I both wrestle with using more words than we need to express an idea. He's faced some challenges in his life, and he's a little bit neurotic. I can relate to those things. He's made some mistakes, but his heart is always in the right place, which I can relate to as well.
There's a strong Amblin film influence on the series, which kind of makes Trollhunters a spiritual companion to Netflix's summer sleeper hit Stranger Things. I know you couldn't have seen the Duffer Brothers coming, but it's a funny coincidence.
Guggenheim: The funny thing is when Stranger Things came out, we were all watching it, and we would come into development meetings — and bear in mind we've been working on this for over five years now — and we'd be like, “Stranger Things is so awesome, but we did it first!” My hope is that it shows that there is something in the ether, there's something that all of us are craving out of our entertainment right now. My daughters loved Stranger Things, and they also loved Trollhunters. I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but I do think that if you're a fan of Stranger Things, you'll probably enjoy Trollhunters.
It's comfort food, right? There's a familiarity to watching something influenced by Amblin. I think in a way, it makes us feel safe.
Guggenheim: I think we all need that right now.
One thing I was reminded of while watching was how incredible Anton Yelchin was. To lose him at such a young age must have been devastating. Have you and Guillermo given any thought to the future of the series?
Guggenheim: If the first 23 are met with the response that we're hoping for, absolutely. It's definitely been a challenge for us to continue on in the wake of Anton's passing. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but I think we all felt the same way, which was after our shock and our grief, we all had to reconcile the sad reality that Anton was no longer with us with the practical reality that we still had to finish the show. The way we reconciled that was recognizing that the best way to honor Anton was to help get this show out into the world so that people could experience one of Anton's final performances — and what a wonderful performance it was. He really imbues Jim with what I thought was Anton's finest quality, which is the depth of his soul. He was such a warm, wonderful person, and that really comes through in Jim.