Striking a fresh idea in children’s programming is as difficult as escaping a raging troll with only your wits, your kindness, and a sketchbook. Netflix’s Hilda manages to do both.
Created by British graphic novelist Luke Pearson, Hilda is a blue-haired girl with a penchant for adventure. Pearson took inspiration from Nordic folklore and created a cohesive and immersive experience for readers (and now viewers) of all ages. Netflix’s Hilda doesn’t stray far from its source material, but augments it with vibrant animation and a lo-fi electronic soundtrack.
As we watch Hilda’s adventures through the wilderness and into the heart of the local metropolis, Trolberg, we encounter characters and storylines proving that there is always more to things than meets the eye. Hilda’s ability to discern what’s under the surface becomes her greatest strength and the source of her courage in the face of danger.
We first meet Hilda (voiced by Bella Ramsey) exploring the wilderness surrounding her home, where she lives with her mother and faithful deerfox, Twig. As she wanders far from her house, she stumbles upon a strangely misshapen rock and identifies it as a troll. She fastens a bell to its nose to warn her when it starts to move, and sits down to sketch. Lost in her drawing, she doesn’t notice the sun go down until the bell rings.
What follows is a mad dash back to her home with the troll in hot pursuit. Just as she reaches the glow of home the troll catches up to her. It’s then that Hilda sees that he is in distress due to the bell on his nose. After she removes the bell, the troll grabs her and opens its mouth as if to eat her ... and instead gives her back her sketchbook, which it had been holding on its tongue.
As the troll stomps off, Hilda says, “Well, that was pretty traumatic, but such is the life of an adventurer.”
These first few minutes of the series establish recurring themes: that the world is often wondrous and dangerous at the same time; that first impressions are often misunderstood; and most importantly, that empathy breeds courage. Hilda continually places its protagonist and her friends in the shoes of the creatures who are supposedly dangerous or even deadly. Armed then with understanding, Hilda responds with courage.
Empathy is the ability to understand and subsequently share the feelings of another. It is a primary attribute of biblical love, which is patient and kind. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Hilda’s ability to discern what’s under the surface becomes her greatest strength.
Hilda is not flawless, by any means. She is often stubborn and impetuous. She lashes out at her friends. In one episode, she accidentally causes them to lose their souls when she doesn’t read the fine print of a spell. But as the series progresses and she grows in empathy toward others, she begins to demonstrate love by placing their best interests over her own personal safety.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
God displayed this kind of love through the cross, allowing the body and heart of his Son to be broken as a means of bringing us into fellowship with him. He directs us, in response to this love, to love each other and even our enemies. Hilda displays this kind of love, the kind that seeks to understand and think first of the other person, even if the other person is literally a troll.
The love that Hilda exemplifies isn’t just woven through the storyline. The very aesthetic of the show undergirds this theme. Pearson’s art bears similarity to the work of graphic novelist Chris Ware and the endearing characters of Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. He uses consistent color palettes with soft, expressive lines—the reds, browns, and yellows of Hilda’s daytime world blend into their blue counterparts at night. His approach to color is restrained, drawing mainly on earth tones and warmth to achieve a natural effect. The show looks and feels inviting, simple, and down-to-earth.
In a 2014 interview, Pearson pointed out that he aims for a “quietness” when he creates Hilda’s adventures. This sensibility comes through clearly in the animated series. The pacing never approaches the manic action of the average kid’s show. The story has room to breathe. It makes space for its characters to grow. It lets them make mistakes. And in the midst of it all, it never says, “I told you so.” Hilda doesn’t pander with moral lessons or talk down to its viewers—child or adult. As Hilda and her friends grow, so do we.
Hilda runs into dragons, ghosts, nightmare teens, and homeless house gnomes on her adventures, but her courage and readiness to sacrifice herself for others become more certain after each encounter. Her love is, in essence, preparing her to face each new fear. What’s more, when Hilda and her friends offer love to characters that don’t warrant it or ask for it, the results are often wondrous.
Regardless of the consequences and in the face of danger, Hilda offers winsome proof that perfect love does indeed cast out fear. Writing about 1 John 4, John Piper notes that “we would take this to mean not that our love for each other is a flawless expression of God’s love, but that it is God’s love being put into action—God’s love reaching its appointed goal in practical human love. Perfected love is not just an incomplete idea or emotion or potential in the heart. It is completed, accomplished, put into action—and in that sense ‘perfected.’”
And in Hilda’s case, it also leads to some pretty spectacular adventures.