Guillermo del Toro's tame new underworld

WESTLAKE VILLAGE (California) • When Guillermo del Toro was 11 years old, he and his friends would explore the vast sewer system below his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico.

Although he never found anything too fantastical on his subterranean forays, the idea of vast cities and civilisations beneath our own has entranced him ever since.

Del Toro, director of Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015), returns to the underworld with Trollhunters, a 26-episode DreamWorks Animation series on Netflix, starting Dec 23.

The series is set in Arcadia, a fictional American suburb, as well as the secret subterranean city beneath it. In the first episode, a magical amulet chooses Jim Lake Jr (voiced by Anton Yelchin), a kind-hearted and lovelorn high school-student, to become the Trollhunter, a protector of good trolls and the scourge of evil ones.

While del Toro has made his name on scarier, creepier fare such as Pan's Labyrinth (a 2006 fairy tale populated by sadistic military officers and sentient stickbugs in 1944 Spain), Trollhunters is more family-friendly.

"I wanted to do a series that I could imagine watching with a glass of milk on the couch with my dad and my brothers," he said.

Here are four magical elements from Trollhunters. The goblins Besides trolls, gnomes and changelings, Arcadia has goblins, lots of them. Del Toro's vengeful creatures - all flashing canines and skittering little legs - are based on AngloSaxon myths going back centuries.

One particularly nasty trait of goblins is their habit of stealing human babies from cribs and replacing them with "changelings", tiny creatures that look like babies.

In the olden days, iron horseshoes were hung near an infant's crib to prevent the swop, and a magical horseshoe figures in Trollhunters as well. Their insect- like movements are pure del Toro - their creepy tendency to skitter up walls and ceilings evokes memories of Japanese ghost movies.

"It's very much like yokai," del Toro said, referring to Japan's famous and centuries-old spooks. Troll Market The visual heart of the series, Troll Market is a subterranean metropolis pulsing with energy and jewel-fuelled light where trolls eat, fight and drink brews in pubs straight out of Viking lore. The works of comic-book artist Richard Corben inspired the city's grand scale and purple-and-orange colour scheme. "There is a pulp energy to Corben that no one else gives me," del Toro said.

The armour The Trollhunter's gleaming armour was inspired by the polished chrome beauties in John Boorman's 1981 fantasy Excalibur. In that film, the armour of King Arthur and his knights was constantly bathed in an eerie emerald glow, a visual signature that del Toro borrowed for his own. The amulet To summon his magical armour and sword, the Trollhunter calls upon a mystical golden talisman which serves as a source of his power and a symbol of his high office.

Visually, the amulet is "a cross between an Arabian astrolabe and a clock". Its spinning gears evoke "a kind of Arthurian steampunk", del Toro said.

To make the thing work, its master must speak the magic words, much like Ali Baba's "open sesame". "Every talisman needs an incantation," del Toro said.

The Trollhunter's oath - "For the glory of Merlin, daylight is mine to command" - is, of course, straight out of Arthurian legend.

"It also hints at some of the deeper origins that we're going to explore in the series," del Toro added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Guillermo del Toro's tame new underworld'. Print Edition | Subscribe