Review of Hilda (2018)

Moving picture, 5.0 hours

Seen in 2020.

This review refers to the first two seasons.

A brave blue-haired girl and her mother leave their cabin in the woods and move to Trolberg, a more modern walled city where the spirits of the wilderness are less common and poorly understood.

It’s got the standard kids’ stuff: A preteen protagonist having adventures on the border between self-righteous rebellion and cutesy wholesomeness. In the first season, the moral lessons are conservative, including efficacious sorcery with prohibitively high hidden costs regardless of intention. This is averted in the second season, when one of Hilda’s best friends becomes an apprentice witch.

Rather than building a complex new fantasy world, Hilda builds indirectly on a recognizable Norse mythology. However, the Norse pantheon is absent. It’s just the folkloric bestiary: trolls, house elves (including the name Alfur, from Icelandic Old Norse álfr), giants, vittras, huldras, maras and nisses, plus a few other folk mythologies, like the rat king and the barghest. These are neatly mapped onto modern small-town life, greatly aided by the inclusion of a couple of Scandinavian voice actors—women in initially marginal roles, like Kaisa the librarian—who are able to pronounce the words.

The template is familiar down to the inclusiveness and feminism of the central character gallery, and the lack of major stakes and permanent harm. Where many other applications of this template offer nothing of interest, Hilda is superbly crafted. The supernatural is rendered in a finely tuned compromise between naturalism and a sense of wonder, like the high ceilings of Trolberg’s houses. It’s more Totoro than Moomin, made with a love of nature. The animation and character design are excellent, the acting is all good, and the narrative flows easily into and out of a number of dramatic situations at the edges of the 7+ age rating, without talking down to children. The plot is serialized and unlike in The Iron Giant (1999), evil doesn’t exist, except perhaps in peripheral Lovecraftian horrors summoned by a single pluck at a bass. The first extra-long episode of the second season (episode 9) even teases mono no aware in the threat of Hilda’s pet Twig leaving her, but does not implement it. The episode before that is a fine time-travel scenario, trope-aware without being sterile.

Luke Pearson, who created the original comics, also wrote for Adventure Time (2010). Where Adventure Time took callous violence from early video games, Pearson’s Hilda took vibrant colour design instead. The palette is simplified to equidistant bases. The line work is some of the best I’ve ever seen: It looks as if the lines were reduced to a binary single-colour pixel layer with slightly jagged edges to make the colour fills easy, instead of using Bezier vectors, and it’s done so well that it actually contributes to the beauty of the animation, evoking the neat yet organic quality of Rapidograph on acetate in traditional animation. Visually, it’s like a massage for the brain, like the digital order of isometry laminated with the sheer joy of cel-style animation.

I think this is it: The apotheosis of the cartoon, of contemporary family animation as it was made in the anglophonic cultural sphere. They pulled it off at last. In a sense, this is the promise of world animation fulfilled, finally pushing away the debris of Disney’s anthropomorphic past dominance and making something new and amazing—yet easily palatable—in the UK, Canada and USA. Patrick McHale, Pearson’s fellow Adventure Time alumnus, stuck closer to the template in Over the Garden Wall (2014), to its detriment.

animation fiction moving picture series