Review: “3Below” expands — and deepens -Del Toro’s animated world

Over the last few years, the quality Guillermo del Toro’s rather ambitious Netflix trilogy Tales of Arcadia has consistently improved. The first season of Trollhunters was bogged down by stilted dialogue, gross-out jokes, and a supporting cast largely made up of stock characters, but the likability of its main hero and the mythos behind trolls as they were adapted for the series gave it enough promise to keep viewers invested. The next two seasons managed to improve on the weaker areas, more properly fleshing out the side characters and boasting an over-arching plot line so steeped in lore, emotion, excitement, and gorgeous visuals that the earlier episodes’ flaws felt miniscule by comparison.

Though Arcadia’s second installment 3Below takes a sharp turn away from fantasy into sci-fi, the setting and characters established in Trollhunters maintain their identity while the main plot brings us a new premise and lead characters that were interesting and tightly-written right off the bat. Its second and final season highlights the show’s strengths that it built off of its predecessor, including the ability to work in real-world commentary in ways that feel natural and warranted.

With the main characters of both released Arcadia series all being teenagers, it’s hard to avoid a cliché here and there. But where Trollhunters occasionally put too heavy a focus on overdone high school tropes, 3Below strikes the proper balance between the coming-of-age element and the impending interplanetary war that provides the tangible stakes. Extra-terrestrial siblings Aja and Krel are compelling leads with a likable dynamic with each other and with their supporting cast. Aja is more often the focus, which is only fitting since she’s had the more interesting internal conflict over the course of the show, though Krel gets a poignant arc in this season as well. The voice work of Tatiana Maslany and Diego Luna makes the characters feel both confident and vulnerable, helped along by expressive animation and strong writing from many of the same crew members from the previous series.

The different relationships between the main cast and the returning cast from Trollhunters all serve to round out the characters even more, without letting any romantic or adolescent fitting-in subplots distract from anyone’s individual development. You can feel the camaraderie between everyone in Arcadia, and it strengthens the show’s message of finding home in an unfamiliar place without abandoning your roots. Aja and Krel’s experiences after being displaced from their home planet mirror the common experiences of immigrants and refugees; there’s no attempt at subtlety in this regard, nor should there be. One of the main antagonists this season is a government official continually trying to capture the aliens and hold them in a detention facility, seeing them as a threat solely because they’re from somewhere else. Their neighbors and classmates repeatedly come to their defense whether or not they’re aware of their true origins, which is a heartwarming change of pace from the real world.

3Below gives the returning characters just enough of a presence to make them feel like they belong in the story without taking away from the main characters and plot. Several continue their arcs from the previous series, starting intentionally as bland archetypes and gradually rounded out into likable, flawed, but ultimately compassionate people, each with their own insecurities and difficult circumstances to overcome. Some set pieces and plot threads also get a satisfying payoff in the second season, to the point where it feels like they were planned from the beginning. All of the strongest aspects of the show culminate in some exciting and suspenseful action sequences (set against some beautifully designed environments), and an effective series finale, though it’s not quite at the same caliber as the later episodes of Trollhunters.

I’ve been trying to limit comparisons between the two shows, but it’s pretty difficult given that one is a direct continuation of the other. For all Trollhunters’ flaws, over the course of its three seasons, it built up its characters and mythology to the point where its finale had a lot more anticipation and emotional resonance behind it. As a result, 3Below ‘s two-season run feels rushed overall, and some events that feel like they should be more important seem to be glossed over.

That said, the worlds explored in Tales of Arcadia are unique in modern animation, the characters who inhabit them are easy to connect with and root for, and the plot threads, pacing problems or no, are still compelling and thrilling. We can only hope that Wizards is given the time it needs to bring the larger story to a proper end.

A senior at Hollins University whose penchant for Disney led into a love for all things film. Amateur film critic/essayist and aspiring screenwriter/director. View all posts by Mary McKeon

Originally published at http://miseensense.wordpress.com on July 13, 2019.

Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.