Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms Review
Starz and Anchor Bay lump both of Hellboy's Animated adventures (to date, at least) onto one Blu-ray but, in a bewildering turn, shear off all the extra features from the previous stand-alone SD DVDs.
Mike Mignola's acclaimed anti-hero stars in these two large-scale supernatural investigations under the direction of Tad Stones/Phil Weinstein/Victor Cook and produced by Mignola, himself, as well the man who brought the Hell-spawned character to a much wider audience, Guillermo Del Toro. The results are patchy, but fun, though certainly a delight for fans of the series who just want more of this satanic super-sleuth.
Bringing in the vocal talents of Ron Perlman as the iconic Big Red, ostensible poster-boy for the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence), Selma Blair as his fire-raising paramour Liz Sherman (considerably less of a Goth-chick in the cartoons than in the movies, which is a bit of a disappointment), Doug Jones as aquatic psychic Abe Sapien (surely the only one who could provide a voice to the fish-man after having his tonsils replaced by David Hyde Pierce in the first big screen outing) and we also get the great John Hurt, as well, as he brings his withered tone to the ageing Bureau fixture and surrogate father for Hellboy, Prof. John Bruttenholm. This is a fine and authentic step for the makers to have taken, anchoring these off-shoot adventures in the same universe as the movies, whilst still largely adhering to how the characters looked in their original graphic panels. Mind you, this big-name-attraction shouldn't be all that surprising these days, as animated superhero movies all seem to be bulging at their spandex seams with notable celebrity voices from the likes of Alfred Molina, Virginia and Michael Madsen (Wonder Woman) and Kurtwood Smith, Victor Garber and Larry Drake (Green Lantern: First Flight), or Mark Hamill (Batman Animated's Joker) and innumerable A-listers fronting pictures from Pixar and Dreamworks.
So, you get two monstrous yarns for the price of one with this set. Both feature-length, both highly entertaining. Neither, however, anything to write home exclusively about and, essentially, even quite disposable, but awesomely good fun, just the same.
In the first of the duo, Sword Of Storms, two typically rage-filled Japanese demon-lords seek to gain entry back into, and then control over our world, leading to the BPRD getting pitched into a cleverly tripled-pronged tale that rattles along like a roller-coaster but contains some wonderfully devious little side vignettes to spice up the mystery with the genuinely macabre. Hellboy, in possession of the sacred titular blade is flung into a cheerfully demented Japanese underworld of forest spirits, water-demons, vicious arachnid-women and a tag-team bout with a platoon of embittered severed heads. Abe-Sapien and Liz Sherman survive a helicopter crash in the ocean and are forced to fight off the voracious advances of a persistent aqua-serpent from the lonely vantage point of a tiny volcanic atoll. Peri (Frasier) Gilpin's feisty blonde investigator Kate Corrigan is assigned to track down the missing museum academic whose possession by the spirits of a long-dead pre-history is the catalyst for all the mayhem that ensues. All will encounter tests of their courage and conviction, as well as their beliefs, but Hellboy will, as ever, be forced to confront his birthright and his allegiances to Mankind.
The second story, Blood And Iron, moves to Eastern Europe and finds the team investigating the haunting of a rich-kid's new mansion-house. The lost spirits of a vampiric, Elizabeth Bathory-style blood-bather from a long time before still festoon the place and her evil influence, aided by other nefarious ne'er-do-wells - a pair of fiendish witches, a pack of ravenous wolves and, nice one, this, a ferocious werewolf - still contrives to wreak bruising havoc on the team as she seeks to return from beyond the grave. Giving Hurt's dogged and haunted Professor “Broom” Bruttenholm a reason to go back into the field, Blood And Iron tells its story in two leap-frogging time periods - the past in which the Professor first came up against the vampiress, and the present in which he, and his colleagues, must face up to the fall-out from that earlier encounter. Thus, Blood And Iron becomes much more of a personal story, and less epic in scale than its predecessor.
Tad Stones, with Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command behind him, brings in-tow a definite love of the characters, and shows a true feeling for the ensemble-ethic that the stories have always had with this two-fisted foray into the weird and wacky world of Hellboy. Although he serves as director/producer and writer on both films, he is also ably co-helming alongside Phil Wienstein on Sword Of Storms and Victor Cook on Blood And Iron, though the films maintain a strong and singular vision throughout, in spite of their deliberately spider-webbed narratives that see various characters undergoing separate ordeals. Hotly fan-debated before the unfurling of Sword, the continued and reassuring presence of Mike Mignola virtually guarantees that the characters are not tampered with too much and, unlike what Mignola and Del Toro both did with their original interpretations, at least in these stories the pivotal Dr. Broom is not killed off. Mignola always wanted to see Hellboy go to Japan to fulfil some sort of Samurai destiny and with Sword, he gets his wish. Plus, he wanted to maintain the character's eternal push and pull with the demonic legions who believe that he is fighting for the wrong side - and this is perfectly brought into balance with developments in Blood.
Thus, we have a well-considered project that should please everybody.
It is always funky to follow Big Red into action, whether in the original slew of Mignola graphic novels, the show-boating movies from Del Toro, or here in animated form. With such a colourful set of characters, fabulous scenarios and dynamic set-pieces, the Hellboy franchise lends itself to visual interpretations of any kind. But whilst Stones and Mignola find the heart of the characters and the outrageousness of the action with this demonic duo of dark adventures, they inexplicably seem to lose something vital along the way - which I suppose is the “wonder” of it all, for lack of a better phrase. The books opened doorways into worlds and dimensions that allowed your own imagination to take over, and to interpret in your own ways - hinting at, but never fully exploring anything that you found there in the super-stylised shadows, which was great writing on Mignola's part. The films found it necessary to add texture the formula with a little bit more pathos and emotion, hammering home the saviour/outcast/martyr angle with a vengeance, and to add great dollops of action and comedy to the pot. The animated shows, when you boil them down, are able to have their cake and to eat it too. They cater for the fans, those who have already been through the books and the movies and, in this respect, have it easy with a rich heritage of exploits to draw upon that do not limit them in terms of narrative scope as the two big movies had to be, in comparison. Plus, they have no real time-frame to work towards, meaning that the debatable finality of a film - as we sort of witnessed at the end of The Golden Army - is not necessarily a consideration.
And, hey, it is great to see that Hellboy sports those wicked little cloven hooves that he has in the comics, though there must be some sort of demonic physics at work that enables them, and those spindly legs, to support his crimson bulk. We even have those eerie amber-coloured eyes that he is supposed to have, as opposed to the more human looking ones that he has in the movies. Liz, on the other hand, loses the Goth-chick sensibilities of Selma Blair and gains something of a vaguely oriental look - a nod, perhaps, to the anime and manga heroines that regularly cavort across this medium. Whilst Perlman ensures that the Red Monkey's integrity and sarcasm are maintained, it is sad to report that Blair sounds bored and monotone throughout both stories. Now this doomed and withdrawn style worked superbly for her cinematic incarnation as a recovering depressive, but it doesn't translate so well for this far-less angst-ridden protagonist. Doug Jones, however, employs just the right amount of erudite authority and androgynous charm to his fish-man.
Big Red's Tex Avery-influenced Satanic six-shooter, the Samaritan, gets plenty of action, and Abe is more fight-and-fire-power savvy, too. The two films also reveal a gradual development of Liz's pyrotechnic abilities, as she comes to use them in more exciting and intelligent ways - instantly drying herself off after a ditching at sea, for example.
The animation, a combination of hand-drawn and CG elements headed-up by conceptual artist Sean Galloway whose approach to the cherished characters won the fanboys over, also attempts some interesting, though not entirely successful flashes of vivid, film-like motion - fists flying diagonally towards us, for instance, or other such swift combat manoeuvres that come across as both kinetic and a little jerky and obvious. Several wraparound camera shots of characters seem a little laboured and superfluous, too. I love the vividly zany violence of the “flying heads” sequence in Sword, though! Galloway, like Mignola, is infatuated with shape and silhouette, so there is the same semi-expressionist aesthetic to the animated films as there is to the comic-books, his characters unsymmetrical and proud of it. But the overall style, if I'm honest, is barely more detailed or accomplished than any of the newer Scooby-Doo feature-length adventures - though, in actual fact, this is no bad thing, as my kids have ensured that we have every single one of them and, hey, I love 'em just as much as they do! Yet, even though this is a deliberate artistic choice, the films can look a little flat and un-elaborate, despite some very fluid movement and swift-seeming camera-work. But even if the animation is, at times, perfunctory, it is still stylish enough to seduce fans of the original graphic novels with accurate depictions of the main crew and a motley crew of creatures that certainly look as if they could have sprung from the same pages. Action is block-staged, fast and large-scale - these films don't dwell on subtleties. The main set-pieces are brutal and swift and certainly go on for long enough to satisfy fight-fans, even if a couple of them were ultimately truncated at the editing stage. Episodes such as the sacrificial smackdown that prefaces Sword Of Storms and the later battle with a horde of the undead over a fantastical bridge, or the werewolf scuffle and the mansion-levelling confrontation between Hellboy and Hecate in Blood And Iron are obvious standouts, but lots of minor scrapes keep each story moving along at a fair clip.
Cool moments of inspiration are plentiful. The scene in which Corrigan and her psychic albino buddy are trapped in a room full of innocuous everyday objects that have become possessed by artefact-spirits (!) is comedic and spooky - brooms, teapots, an umbrella and a pair of sandals take on a gleeful Evil Dead-style aggression as they converge on our hapless investigators. The adherence to Japanese folklore is also commendable, and this is something that Mike Mignola would have insisted upon. His understanding of, and innate respect for myths and superstitions from all over the world has served the Hellboy exploits well, totally deviating from the usual slew of irradiated, mutated or simply psychotic villains who normally abound in comics and movies. A cackling couplet of cowled witches that shed their cloaks and hoods to become some seriously twisted harpies in Blood, several sinister maidens in the limbo-lost woods of feudal Japan - in particular a very nasty spider-lady who acts as a hybrid of two famous Japanese folk-tales - and lots of tentacled monstrosities crawling from the bowels of the earth or from the bottom of the sea ensure that the variety of menace is more than merely Lovecraftian. And the little touches of character-play are welcome, too, such as Bureau chief, Manning, arrogantly expecting Liz to heat up his coffee for him, and Hellboy's strict verbal etiquette of grumbling “Aww, crap!” at virtually every misfortune that fate hurls at him.
Of the two films, it is Sword Of Storms that is, by far, the superior. Really fastening onto the myth and legend angle of Mignola's tales and combining the trademark device of separating the heroes and forcing them to undergo their own unique ordeals with some outlandish character and scenario concepts, Tad Stones' initial foray into BPRD territory never outstays its welcome and continually entertains. Blood and Iron on the other hand, whilst still very enjoyable, carries an air of simply treading water. Somehow the big monster-smackdown - Hellboy versus the serpentine Hecate - although massively pulverising, lacks steam and, with yet more coils and tendrils to wrap around Big Red feels too damn familiar. Hellboy was always a character and an idea that married the conventional superheroics with the more garish, surreal and hyper-hypnotic esoterica of Doctor Strange, and these animated shows were possibly the greatest avenue with which to explore such a fantastical milieu. Whilst Sword is the more traditional and faithful to the Hellboy of the comics, Blood was where the writers and the animators should really have let themselves go. That they seem more content with what is, ostensibly, a much smaller assignment, albeit one with an intense personal backstory for the aged Prof. Bruttenholm, marks something of a backward step as far as I am concerned. Mind you, it is also worth mentioning that Blood And Iron is, agreeably, a lot darker and scarier, and even features a torture sequence that may not actually show all that much, graphically, but definitely implies far more.
Also, the tacked-on BPRD member of Sidney Leach in this instalment, first encountered in Mignola's Wake The Devil, is pretty much a redundant, dead-in-the-water role, unlike Kate Corrigan in Sword, and who only gets to do a tiny spot of bit-parting in this, who had both presence and a bit of antagonistic bite to her. Other BPRD members flit about in the background, but we still have no appearance of Johann Krauss or Roger, the homunculus, who, let's hope, will add to the eclectic mix in any further animated jaunts that Mignola allows Hellboy to have.
Both stories seem to hail from the second book of Mignola's magnificent Hellboy opus, The Right Hand Of Doom, with little snippets crossing-over from Wake The Devil, as well. Although neither is an adaptation, it is clear that some ideas and concepts have been carried over - the disembodied heads out to reclaim their bodies as well as Hellboy's in the Japanese netherworld found in Sword Of Storms, and the vampiric femme fatale at the crux of Blood And Iron, not to mention the rather heated debate that Big Red has with the manifested goddess Hecate (“You cannot fight your Destiny!”) that also forms part of the second adventure. And this devotion to Mignola's creation is only to be complimented as it keeps these instalments far from being off-shoots, or re-imaginings, and makes them genuinely feel like part of the accepted and much-loved cannon. With a slew of missions already undertaken in the collection of graphic novels and Stones and Mignola clearly revealing a skill for intermingling notions from them with new material, there should be no reason why Hellboy's adventures cannot continue in this animated format.
Another feather in the cap, as well as the voice cast and the enjoyable storytelling, is the excellent music from regular animated-movie composer Christopher Drake that helps cement the two tales in the live-action milieu that Del Toro created. He keeps the atmospherics gripping and resonant, and the action dramatic and full of dynamic aggression - Eastern flavouring for Sword and a gothic organ adding a brooding, spin-tingling touch for Blood. Having that barnstorming main title theme that Marco Beltrami fashioned for the first big screen movie as the centre-piece motif also helps, of course. And, I should confess, these animated films only seem to gain strength with repeated viewings. Hellboy is a supernatural concoction that breaks the mould, never does what you expect it to and injects surrealism with hyper-action, melds detective noir with horror staples and retools almost every myth that it can get its big stone hand around into a neo-gothic universe that nods cheekily at pop-culture whilst endorsing the mystique of the Old World. These little films from Tad Stones fit right in with this bold and unorthodox agenda and are a “must” for any fan of Hellboy.
However, as we shall see further into this review, this is still a frustratingly neutered release that will give any potential punters a severe case of second thoughts.