At first glance one might not immediately see a likeness between Steve Coogan and a 50-foot troll. I certainly didn’t. However, the more I think about it the more I realize that two of my favorite films of the year, “Trollhunter” and “The Trip,” have an awful lot in common. True, Coogan and his co-star Rob Brydon don’t look all that much like legendary Norwegian monsters, or even the gruff and scruffy woodsman that keeps them in line. Yet each film speaks with an oddly melancholy whimsy that turns out to be quite compelling. Christopher and I caught both of these earlier this year and included “The Trip” in our initial list of 10 Tribeca films to watch for. You can also check out Christopher’s Sundance review of “Trollhunter” here.
As they both kick off their limited releases this weekend it’s a good moment to mull over the unexpected affinity between the two, and maybe draw some significance of our own from these strange and ambivalent journeys. Each film is the story of a team moving northward, trying to find meaning amidst sweeping and mysterious European landscapes. They are equally hilarious, though with different comic styles, and they both flirt with an existential melancholy that snowballs along the course of their peculiar yet strangely universal narratives. Simultaneously wildly entertaining and deeply ambiguous, troubling fundamental questions have never been so funny.
Our two groups of intrepid travelers begin their trips in the populated southern cores of England and Norway, heading north into stark regions dripping with literary and mythological significance. Coogan and Brydon find themselves in the moors of the Brontë sisters, somewhere between Wuthering Heights and the homes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The two poets in particular seem to haunt Coogan, who feels the need to quote them at length in his droopier moods. Visiting the houses becomes a pilgrimage-like experience for him, though tempered by Brydon’s earnest humor. And of course all of this is set to the murky and almost other-worldly landscapes of the region, moors and ancient rock features that skirt a different realm of perception and understanding.
The troll hunter and a band of aspiring filmmakers march into the north and find themselves in equally overwhelming scenery. According to Old Norse cosmology, the various realms of myth were arranged north to south, and sitting directly above the world of humans is the world of the trolls. There’s even a massive national park in the Scandinavian mountains called Jotunheimen, the name for this giant and troll-ridden mythological realm. As our heroes move further up into the white wilderness of Norway, “Trollhunter” takes on a mystical quality. The landscape itself seems to grow more impressive and ethereal as the trolls grow taller and more intimidating. It is as if we have been transported to a dimension where these monsters are no longer out of place, but rather the little humans are dwarfed and rendered eerily incongruous.
About those trolls. There’s a sense of visual extravagance that happens in both of these films, moments in which the audience gets to soak up some gorgeous images. The trolls are an obvious example, but director Andre Øvredal does a wonderful job of making every new encounter an exciting moment. There are many varieties and they just get bigger and stranger as the film progresses, the world of trollhunting turning out to be even more intricate and involved than expected.
Yet somehow “The Trip” manages to capture the same sort of visual accomplishment in the north of England. Coogan and Brydon’s tour, after all, is of the best inns and restaurants in the region and the food is magnificent. I don’t think I’ve seen such an impressive display of culinary beauty since last year’s “I Am Love,” and “The Trip” even bests the erotic cuisine of that film with its sheer lavish creativity. The vivid colors, textures and arrangements of food that these two eat along the way are so appetizing that it’s almost impossible to leave the theater without running immediately for a snack.
These feats of delectable filmmaking only add to the landscapes and mythologies of the journeys, bringing “The Trip” and “Trollhunter” out of the mundane real world and into an almost surreal context. That’s why it is equally important that they both take great steps to simultaneously maintain a direct dialogue with reality. Coogan and Brydon are, after all, playing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Øvredal has taken inspiration from “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield,” framing his film as if it is being created by his aspiring documentarian characters. Not that anyone would believe that either of these films is non-fiction while sitting in the theater, but the interplay between the reality of the protagonists and their fictional narratives is fascinating. The setting is kept rooted in our world even if the images begin to transport us somewhere else.
This balance is perhaps clearest in the many moments of existential dilemma tempered by raucous humor. Coogan is the tormented type, obsessed with fame and deeply plagued by the anxiety of wanting to be remembered. Yet every moment of emotional conflict is interrupted by a hilarious comment from Brydon or perhaps even an interjection by the landscape around them. In a grand moment of contemplation atop a beautiful and ancient rock formation, Coogan finds himself face to face with the most hilariously obnoxious old bore. Throughout the film conversations about death, illness and family are peppered with sad observations which then inevitably devolve into hilarious Michael Caine impression-offs and the like.
This simultaneous balance of pathos and absurdity is equally present in “Trollhunter,” albeit with a distinctly Norwegian inflection. It’s not about the existential crisis of a single man, though Troll Hunter Hans himself is in many ways a philosophically ambivalent hero in the spirit of the reflective gunmen that lead many a later Western. Instead, “Trollhunter” seems mostly concerned with government cover-up and perhaps even the advent of Global Climate Change. Equally serious and extensive material nonetheless, it’s all colored by the ridiculous ironies inherent in government secrecy. Polish bear smugglers, troll goo and a whole variety of unfortunate smells fill the film with gags. Even the unique troll talent for sniffing out Christians is played for laughter, balancing a comment on Norway’s shift away from religion with the oddly funny experience of sitting in a cave surrounded by snoring monsters.
Which leaves a final question: where do Øvredal and Michael Winterbottom finally leave us? These are two road movies dependent upon balance. Reality and fiction come and go while humor alternates with deeply inspired questions about success, anxiety, power and humanity. There are moments of joyous resolution: Coogan and Brydon belting out ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” as they fly down a highway, or the occasional truly satisfying containment of an enormous marauding troll. Yet is that enough? Both films are entertaining and witty romps through the voyages of some errant and conflicted characters, but do they answer the questions they pose? I must say that though I thoroughly enjoyed them both, I walked out of “Trollhunter” with a sense of amused catharsis while “The Trip” left me a bit emotionally devastated. Coogan and Troll Hunter Hans are deeply enigmatic figures in a way, while at the same time extremely human and relatable. Life, after all, is both troubling and fundamentally mirthful, especially if you’ve got the sharp, dry humor of the Brits or Norwegians. Am I entirely sure what to take from these two fascinating adventures? Not at all. But I know that I will definitely be seeing them a few more times, and so should you.