Trolls are having a moment. Yesterday, DreamWorks announced that Anna Kendrick would star in Trolls, an animated musical based on the creepy children’s toys. Last week, Laika released the trailer for The Boxtrolls, which combats trolls’ reputation as monsters, depicting them instead as silly magical creatures living peacefully in the sewers. And last year, Frozen featured a gaggle of friendly, wise trolls who adopted leading man Kristoff and gave leading lady Anna a hand when she needed their help.
All of these creatures stand in pretty sharp contrast to various Old Norse myths, which establish a few basic trollish characteristics: they’re magical, strong, not very smart, human-hungry, and vulnerable to the sun, which turns them into stone. While this cuddly new breed of trolls may be magical, they’re also cute and amiable. And that’s a shame.
Filmmakers of the Troll New Wave are taking a new spin on an old legend. The problem: These new trolls are boring. Vampires and zombies have been done to death, but there’s a deep well of Scandinavian troll literature to draw from. And because there are so many different types of trolls in mythology, it’s possible to represent them on screen in exciting ways while still being loyal to folklore. The brutish troll has a place in classic mythology, but it’s been cheated out of its place in pop culture by cute, nonthreatening creatures.
Sure, the new trolls are a little interesting; in Frozen, they have a society autonomous from Arendelle’s politics. In The Boxtrolls, they make cool inventions out of garbage. But both these stories water down the creatures, casting them as merely convenient and helpful. By the end of The Boxtrolls, you can be sure that no human will be eaten, and the two species will learn to live in peace. You could switch trolls for elves or goblins, and nobody would be the wiser.
At least DreamWorks’s Trolls and The Boxtrolls will give the creatures a starring role. Even in movies where trolls are the bad guys, they’re still sidelined as secondary and one-dimensional characters; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone both include trolls only in a few scenes. The Hobbit presents trolls as scary, rude monsters. They use bad language, wipe their lips on their sleeves, and are big enough to easily pick up Bilbo and the dwarves (who are admittedly shorter than humans). In the Harry Potter series, they’re violent, dim-witted monsters twice as large as a normal adult, and they carry around clubs they’re always swinging at people. Even Hermione couldn’t handle one on her own in Sorcerer’s Stone, and she’s the brightest witch of her age. More recently, in the 2011 Norwegian movie Trollhunter, trolls were depicted as monsters who could smell the blood of Christians — they’re scary, but shot in a shaky-cam, found-footage style without too many clear shots.
A renewed focus on a neglected myth is nice and all — but now that studios have remembered trolls exist, it’s time for a movie from a more interesting troll’s point of view. Can we get a story about a troll family, struggling to make ends meet while under the constant threat of turning to stone under sunlight? Or the story of a noble troll guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort? Or a smart troll who graduated high school and went to a top-tier college despite a genetic disposition to simplemindedness and size? Or even just more good old-fashioned monster movies, like Trollhunter, which feature trolls threatening civilians? There are some great troll stories out there, just waiting to be put on screen. Let’s represent them properly.