Before Tales of Arcadia became an animated franchise/shared universe, there was DreamWorks Animation’s Netflix show Trollhunters. That tale introduced a trio of human teenagers who were blissfully unaware of the magical troll civilization that lived beneath the surface of their suburban neighborhood until fate brought their cultures crashing together. After three seasons, 52 episodes, and numerous awards, the Trollhunters story (so far) came to a close earlier this year. But before the final episode aired, the flagship series introduced the Tales of Arcadia universe to come by welcoming newcomers Krel and Aja (and the wizard Merlin) onto the scene. And that, dear readers, is where the story of 3Below begins.
If you aren’t caught up on Trollhunters, this is a good opportunity to tell you to stop reading and do so if you’re worried about spoilers; Trollhunters and 3Below share a timeline and important events from each series occur in each other’s episodes. It was a smart movie to use the flagship series to introduce these newcomers to audiences out there, and I’m happy to say the crossover approach doesn’t act as a crutch for the storytelling. 3Below stands on its own as a series about outsiders who find strength in each other, forge ahead in spite of difficult circumstances in a world that doesn’t want them, and fight for a cause that’s greater than themselves.
Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical when I heard about the plans for a Trollhunters spinoff series focusing on Aja (Tatiana Maslany) and Krel (Diego Luna), but since the original series was so good, and since Guillermo del Toro, Rodrigo Blaas, Marc Guggenheim, and Chad Hammes were once again involved, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. As previously revealed, Aja and Krel are actually alien royals from the distant planet. Viewers get a chance to visit their homeworld, Akaridion-5, in the very first episode, which briefly explores a capital city populated by energy-based lifeforms. The setting looks like a combination of the computerized worlds of TRON and ReBoot, and is wholly taken up by hyper-colored cityscape where neon colors break up the blue monotony of every other possible surface. And while we don’t spend a lot of time on Akaridion-5 throughout the series, it’s home to our heroes and their bodyguard Varvatos Vex (Nick Offerman). This trio is forced to flee to Earth when a military leader stages a successful coup and puts the royal family in jeopardy.
Here is where del Toro’s storytelling elements appear to come into play. Like The Devil’s Backbone, a story which features the political unrest and sectarian violence of the Spanish Civil War as its backdrop (and is actually just one of many Easter eggs viewers will spot; this one’s on the local drive-in theater’s marquee), 3Below focuses on characters who are forced to flee their homes and eke out an existence in a hostile territory in the hopes of surviving and one day returning to their roots once more. Couple this idea with the contemporary treatment of illegal aliens (the terrestrial and political kind), refugees, and law-abiding immigrants here in the U.S. and you’ve got some thoughtworthy content in a show that’s otherwise meant for kids. Unfortunately, the theme is not thoroughly explored in the series and only calls attention to it in a few brief scenes. Even when 3Below does dip a toe into this contentious subject, it’s clear that this cartoon world is a kinder one than ours, so the tension quickly dissipates. That’s about as deep as 3Below gets when it comes to commentary; we’ll have more on that particular topic in an upcoming article, so keep an eye out.
3Below feels like it’s going back to basics rather than picking up the Trollhunters torch and carrying it forward. This is still a story about teenagers trying to find their place in the world and figure out their role in this foreign society, but it’s also about fart jokes, fish-out-of-water silliness, and dance parties. It’s a series for younger audiences who hope to grow up with Aja and Krel more so than it is for those who already matured alongside the Trollhunters trio of Jim, Toby, and Claire. It’s so silly, in fact, that the humor actually works against the story’s important thematic elements. While Aja and Krel attempt to fit into human culture with all of its eccentricities, while bringing their own peculiarities into the mix with very silly consequences, they’re also trying to source enough components to fix their ship and find their way home. But while that’s a solid premise for the core of this plot, there’s not enough meat on the bones to flesh the narrative out, which is why the first season’s story is floated along on wave after wave of slapstick humor. That’s fine, of course, but you’ll know within an episode or two if 3Below is your kind of show because the series picks a tone and sticks with it until the end.
The same can be said of Offerman’s take on Vex, a pompous and braggadocious warrior who’s responsible for guarding the prince and princess. Offerman turns this character up to 11, refers to himself in the third person, and always preaches about meeting his glorious death. That quickly wears thin. I found Vex, who features in every episode and a majority of the scenes, to be more irritating than endearing. Even his ultimate character arc, intended to be an emotional gut-punch, fell flat for me. The good news is that Maslany and Luna are excellent in their roles and bring some originality to their characters in terms of their voice work, and that the new and returning cast alike are solid throughout. Pretty much every character here has an accent, from Glenn Close‘s sometimes-robotic voice as the ship’s computer Mother, to the return of Fred Tatasciore as the German-accented Spanish teacher Señor Uhl, to Cheryl Hines and Tom Kenny delivering their best 1950s sitcom voices as a pair of stand-in parental units. (And it always does my heart good to hear Frank Welker barking himself silly as the alien dog Luug.)
3Below has a solid-enough story to make the 13-episode first season worth binging. Though it relies heavily on slapstick and silliness without digging into the tough thematic material it introduces, it’s still a fun fish-out-of-water adventure even if it’s not quite out-of-this-world.
Rating: ★★★ Good