It’s a good time to be a puppet. Baby Yoda from “The Mandalorian” became the breakout foam-rubber star of last year. Disney+ came up with creative ideas to keep “The Muppets” alive during COVID. Puppet-based Egyptian icon Abla Fahita recently landed her first international scripted series on Netflix. And Nickelodeon just debuted “The Barbarian and the Troll,” a cult-sensation-in-the-making that harks back to the golden age of Jim Henson-style family entertainment.
“The Barbarian and the Troll” centers around the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired exploits of Brendar the Barbarian (voiced by Spencer Grammar). In the medieval fantasy land of Gothmoria, sword-swinging, armor-wearing Brendar is a member of the Royal Order of Warrior Princesses. Turns out, though, that “warrior” part is really more ceremonial in nature. And Brendar, who dreams of becoming a “feared and revered” fighter, can’t stop longing to go out into the world at large on a good, old-fashioned fantasy-world quest. Turns out her brother (Kendar, of course) was kidnapped by a demon by the name of Alvin. Brendar lusts for revenge, but that’s not really a “princess” thing. Unable to control her violent tendencies, she gets demoted from “warrior princess” to “barbarian.” Not that it matters much to her. So long as she gets to hack something apart.
Banished into the wide world outside of her castle and wandering into a seedy tavern (which, as role playing gamers know, is where all quests start), Brendar finds herself teaming up with a weedy little purple troll by the name of Evan (series creator Drew Massey). Evan is the black sheep of his troll kinfolk. His dad, king of the trolls, expects Evan to follow in the long proud family tradition of guarding bridges and eating the occasional traveler. But poor Evan just doesn’t have it in him to terrorize people. He wants to be a bard, a wandering minstrel singing tales of derring-do. Unfortunately, Evan’s never been anywhere or done anything. Consequently, his songs kinda suck. Having burnt his bridges (literally), Evan finds himself playing the lute for unreceptive drunks in that seedy tavern (“The Queen’s Goiter,” by name, in case you were wondering). But in tough-talking, fiercely independent Brendar (and her “absurdly complex backstory”), Evan finds his muse—especially when Brendar is recruited to assist a wizard (the “hacky has-been” Horus Scrum) in a dangerous side quest. She’d rather stick to her main quest, but even a barbarian’s got to earn a living.
From its mythopoetic roots in Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh to the world-building works of J.R.R. Tolkien to the million-selling novels of George R.R. Martin, fantasy has a full, rich history. It’s been around long enough to develop its own unique set of tropes and clichés. And it’s those well-worn themes, characters and situations that make the fantasy genre so ripe for parody. “The Barbarian and the Troll” treads much the same path as Matt Groening’s fantasy riff “Disenchantment” over on Netflix. But where that series has struggled for a couple seasons to find its comedic target, “The Barbarian and the Troll” nails it immediately.
“The Barbarian and the Troll” is clearly a family show. It’s sort of a mixture of the impatient satire of “Disenchantment,” the silly anarchy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the felt-based fantasia of Labyrinth and the genial, moralistic storytelling of “Fraggle Rock.” There is violence, but it’s cartoonish in the extreme. A dismembered dragon spews rainbow confetti from its wounds. Beheaded skeletons continue to converse. Many of the jokes are built around silly puns. But like “The Muppet Show” before it, there are enough winking double entendres and nostalgic references for the adults in the audience to feel catered to as well. (At one point Evan sings that he’s got “99 problems, but a bridge ain’t one”—an 18-year-old reference that’s still worth a snicker.)
Grammer, who made her mark as snarky daughter Summer in “Rick and Morty,” carries her suburban valley girl attitude into Brendar the Barbarian. The point is not to create a realistic Red Sonja clone, but to add anachronistic sass and attitude to a bloodthirsty puppet with a talking ax. Massey—a former Muppeteer for Jim Henson who went on to perform in shows like “Greg the Bunny,” “Robot Chicken” and the reboot of “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters”—brings a wealth of talent to this show as creator, puppeteer and voice talent. His Evan the Troll is a plucky little nerd who dreams of high adventure, even if his isn’t particularly suited for it. More than just the bumbling sidekick, Evan adds a certain amount of heart to the proceedings thanks to Massey’s subtle voice and character work.
Unlike a lot of family-oriented fare, “The Barbarian and the Troll” actually goes through the effort to tell a serialized story with recurring characters. (“Helen the Goat” and a ticked-off skeleton named General Skelly are already fan-fave side characters.) To top it off, the musical-minded series gets a lot of mileage out of Evan’s relentlessly peppy and frequently catchy tunes. Between its silly jokes, nostalgic puppet characters and clever tweaking of the sword-and-sorcery genre, “The Barbarian and the Troll” is the exact kind of “kid” show that adults raised on Conan the Barbarian can get obsessed over and remain guilt-free.
BOX: “The Barbarian and the Troll” airs Fridays at 5:30pm on Nickelodeon.