Puppetry in children’s entertainment is often seen as a throwback to a bygone era. That’s not to say that puppetry as an art form has completely disappeared but it’s nowhere near as prevalent in kid shows as it was when I was growing up in the ‘90s. I fondly remember enjoying the colorful felt characters on Eureeka’s Castle and Weinerville on Nickelodeon, the channel that has come to be known as “The First Kids Network.” Appealing to modern youth sensibilities is the challenge faced then by Nickelodeon’s new puppet comedy show The Barbarian and the Troll.
Set in the fantasy world of Gothmoria, the series follows Brendar and Evan, the eponymous barbarian warrior princess and troll respectively, as they encounter magical and wacky characters on their epic quest to vanquish the evil demon that has imprisoned Brendar’s brother. The show is the creation of Mike Mitchell and Drew Massey both of whom boast impressive credentials. For the last three decades Massey, who also does double duty voicing and performing Evan the troll, has showcased his talents as a puppeteer on acclaimed productions, perhaps most famously The Muppets. Mitchell meanwhile is a CalArts alumnus with an eclectic resume working in the fields of both animation and live-action in various capacities but typically as a director. Despite divergent career paths, Mitchell and Massey have remained friends and colleagues for years and this show is the passion project combining the skills of two creative minds at the top of their game.
There’s a tendency in children’s media to talk down to kids. Thankfully that’s not the case with this show. In fact, there are a number of jokes and references that are more than likely to go over the heads of the younger viewers. Take for instance Evan’s line, “I’ve got 99 problems but a bridge ain’t one.” I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the majority of Nickelodeon viewers weren’t even alive when that Ice-T song came out, much less pick up on the allusion. The show’s humor is very reminiscent at times of Dreamworks Animation films, not surprising given Mitchell’s past work in various Dreamworks productions most notably the Shrek films. It’s a delicate balance to entertain both children and adults while not completely alienating either, one that Barbarian and the Troll deftly navigates.
Apparently the creators retitled the show from the originally announced Brendar the Barbarian when they realized early on the popularity of plucky troll, Evan. At first glance, Evan appears to fill the archetypical “bumbling sidekick” role to the heroic Brendar. A tried and true formula that could easily go wrong, but it isn’t played just for laughs. Massey brings depth and nuance to the character I certainly wasn’t anticipating from a puppet comedy. Evan’s frustration with his predestined station in life as a bridge troll and his desire to become a musician that alienates him from his troll king father has calls to mind Hermey the Elf from that timeless Rudolph Christmas special. It’s a universal theme that will undoubtedly strike a chord with Millennials at this particular point in time when everyone feels stuck and has to put their dreams on hold. Between Baby Yoda Grogu last year and now Evan, I never guessed I would be affected so deeply by two different puppets. I would not at all be surprised to see Evan plush dolls flying off the shelves come this holiday season.
While Evan is the textbook definition of “adorkable,” Brendar (voiced by Spencer Grammer) is the complete opposite. In Parks & Rec terms she’s the Ron Swanson to Evan’s Leslie Knope, an apt comparison since Brendar does share similar qualities with Swanson such as hilarious deadpan delivery and a no-nonsense personality. Not wearing her emotions on her sleeves in contrast to Evan certainly gives Brendar a Mandalorian-esque aura that may make it a bit difficult for the audience to connect with the character at least initially. However, a running gag of her “absurdly complex backstory” yet to be revealed hints at deeper layers that will be uncovered slowly as the show progresses, not dissimilar to the Mandalorian.
The early episodes also scratch the surface of the budding friendship between Brendar and Evan that is very much akin to an older sister/younger brother relationship. I can’t help but sense an underlying found family theme at the heart of the show very much in the same vein as the recent DuckTales reboot.
Going into The Barbarian and the Troll, I expected simple stand-alone episodic stories that were loosely interconnected. So I was a bit taken aback to discover the series is serialized, a format which has only grown more prominent in children’s media thanks in no small part to the advent of streaming. The implementation of more sophisticated storytelling further illustrates how Massey and Mitchell don’t feel the need to dumb down the show and know young viewers have enough savvy to keep up with the narrative.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music of the show, specifically Evan’s uplifting and peppy songs. I can only hope Nickelodeon plans to release the songs as part of a digital album in the near future because if not then it’s a huge missed opportunity.
After watching the first episode, I was reminded of a scene from the Jim Henson Company produced sitcom Dinosaurs in which the matriarch Fran Sinclair criticizes her husband Earl for enjoying a sock puppet show. Earl retorts, “Yeah, you’d think that because they’re puppets – so the show seems to have a children’s aesthetic,” before a brilliant meta turn directly to the camera and further adding, “Yet the dialogue is unquestionably sharp-edged, witty and thematically skewed to adults.” That perfectly encapsulates the genius of The Barbarian and the Troll. Do yourself a favor and tune into what may possibly be, at least in my opinion, the next big thing for Nickelodeon.
The Barbarian and the Troll premieres tonight, at 7:30 p.m. (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon