Monday, July 02, 2007

REVIEW: "Sword of Storms": Heaven-Sent Hellboy

[article written for Toon Zone News - 06-11-2007]

Before we delve into our little tête à tête, dear reader, let me make one thing clear: I am a huge fan of the Big Red Devil excellence that wasn't Hellboy.

In recent years, I've been a divided boy when it comes to Hellboy. I have always been a great fan of the concept and found the comic Hellboy a wonderful slice of mythological horror fused with contemporary humor and rich comic-genre indulgences. This Hellboy was unique: visually, narratively and characteristically. But I thought the movie—despite the handiwork of creator Mignola and the film master Del Toro—both ugly and disappointing: it was a substandard conspiracy-driven mishmash of Hellboy characters, all of which had been thrust through the Hollywood blender. Despite fine work by Ron Perlman, Doug Jones and Selma Blair, it managed to focus on every attribute from the book that would have best been avoided in a movie. It not only failed as a film but failed to capture what I found so wonderful and unique in Mignola's original comic work.

In fact, it did a lot to sour me on the very concept.

So with Hellboy: Sword of Storms, we have a full-length animated feature that could go either way with this dainty reviewer. Would it bring Hellboy back to its roots, or would it continue the drudgy film? Given that it has creative elements from both visions, I could see it going either way. Fortunately, it manages to combine the best features of both.

From the film it borrows an excellent set of voice artists. Special doff of the ol' hat to Doug Jones, who does a wonderful voice for Abe Sapien, one that doesn't attempt to copy David Hyde Pierce. Mignola was also intimately involved with the production and the story, and if what he says on the DVD is true, he was given much freer reign.

So it is no surprise that the story of Sword of Storms is very much more the kind of affair you'd expect from the comic: Hellboy has to protect a Japanese sword that has been fused with two ancient Japanese spirits representing thunder and lightening, and if the tragedy of past love is allowed to play out once more and the sword is shattered, the world will be threatened by these meteorological horrors. This story is much less generic, compacted and predictable than the story in the live-action film. It also has a gentle pace (though punctuated by action and violence) and a confident flow, so that it doesn't feel like it's packing too much in. The ending isn't quite as strong as the rest of the tale, but it shouldn't leave the audience feeling unsatisfied. Occasionally, the dialog has a little too much energy to it; nothing excessive for the cartoon action genre, but a little out of place for Hellboy. This is just another minor niggle, though.

Taking Japanese folk lore as the central theme was a good move, and the film uses the imagery found in Japanese legend without causing any indignities to the culture. Japanese mythology is perfect for Hellboy: it's a little off kilter and has a waspish, fairy-tale quality to its texture that makes it a perfect foil to Hellboy's "no messing" attitude. The Japanese folklore is wonderfully well-presented throughout the film, from the delicate rendering of the Japanese scrolls to the demonic procession of a folklore professor.

Visually, the film looks quite good, with animation that is slick, consistent, and well-directed, and CG work that is rarely obvious (always nice in an age of awkward CG inserts). The design work on Hellboy himself and Abe is very good, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some spiders vividly realized during one of the film's middle sequences—spiders nearly always lose out in animation. But I can't say I'm a big fan of its look. The producers admit on one of the special features that the film was supposed to diverge from Mignola's usual dark, flat visuals, and as a result too many of the supporting cast looked trapped in the cartoon niche. Liz Sherman would fit into X-Men: Evolution, and Professor Sakai would fit into a whole host of lightweight toy tie-in action cartoons.

The DVD comes with a great commentary, with Mignola, supervising producer/director Tad Stones and director Phil Weinstein offering honest, informative insights into the film, the problems they encountered (the schedule for this film sounded incredibly harsh) and objective criticism. In a culture of backslapping commentary, this team offers up a straightforward appraisal that gives credit where it's due and criticism where it's deserved. A lovely interactive sequence called "Follow the Fox" opens up behind-the-scenes sequences, and there is a whole host of relevant documentaries focusing on the creation of Hellboy. A Q&A panel discussion of the Hellboy concept is worth a watch, if only for a fairly honest breakdown of just what sort of person Mignola himself is. Look out for some of those obligatory storyboards/script on the neatly presented DVD-ROM feature, and watch the novel little kill-count feature for Hellboy/Liz/Abe tick upward as the storyboard-to-movie comparison plays!

The DVD comes with a free comic book that is simple and fun, though maybe a little too whimsical for my tastes: There is a fine line in the concept where dark humor hits slapstick, and I couldn't help feeling the story in this comic slipped just over it. It plays more like a kid's comic than an adult one, which is a pity, but the artwork is palatable and it's an enjoyable freebie supplement.

This is a great DVD, beautifully packaged and full of features. It's wonderful to see that Hellboy can work beyond the comic. Given the involvement of so many from the original film (Perlman, Mignola, Blair and even Del Toro), I have new hope for the live-action sequel.

Here's to looking forward to more Hellboy, be it the next animated adventure, Blood and Iron, or the next feature movie, Hellboy: The Golden Army. In the meantime, this is a Hellboy film that all Hellboy fans can enjoy sinking their teeth into!

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