As a long-time lover of comics, one of the most unique and interesting books I've encountered has been Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Featuring equal parts drama, action, suspense and mythology, there's a lot to love and much to learn. Looking back, it was no surprise that it would eventually become a feature film: with a cinematic feel and a stylized look, Hellboy was ripe for the picking. Still, I couldn't help but be a little surprised upon first hearing of its venture to the big screen. Don't get me wrong---it's a great concept that works on many levels---but it just seemed like a big box-office risk (a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless). Thankfully, the recent tidal wave of comic book-related films of late (Spider-Man, Blade, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, etc.) has really opened the door wide for funnybooks, and Hellboy has finally stepped through.
The title character first appeared in print just over 10 years ago (1993's San Diego Comic Con Comics #2), and the first "official" series began a year later. Seed of Destruction (March-June 1994) was a four issue mini-series published under the Dark Horse/Legend banner. Garnering a great amount of critical acclaim, this first adventure of "The World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator" really carved out its own niche in the comic book industry. Additionally, Hellboy appeared in various one-shots and compilations---including the excellent Dark Horse Presents---and made another return in his second mini-series, Wake the Devil (June-October 1996), which gave a slightly more detailed account of the character's origin (incidentally, the film itself is centered around the events of this mini-series). Since then, the character has appeared in countless other short stories and mini-series (The Conqueror Worm, The Third Wish), and the film itself has undoubtedly increased the character's exposure considerably. Supporting characters have even stepped up to the plate in such titles as Abe Sapien and Hellboy Junior, proving that there's much more to like about Hellboy than a great main character.
Although the film itself opened strongly at the box office (securing the top spot with a $23M gross) and enjoyed positive reviews, Hellboy only managed to gross $59M domestically. Still, with a projected sequel in the works for 2006 (and hopefully, more comics!), the future looks bright for Hellboy. In many ways, the story of the character's success is inspiring: although the going was slow for many years, the dedication of the creator really paid off. In any case, the book has made a relatively painless transition to the big screen, so long-time fans and newbies alike can really enjoy this one.
Part of the character's successful transition was due in part to the excellent costume design and production team. I've always been skeptical about the look of live-action comic book films, and for good reason: usually, they're quite lacking. Thankfully, Hellboy looks fantastic, and I doubt fans could ask for more. The casting of Ron Perlman as the main man himself was spot-on, as I doubt you'd find too many actors to fit the profile of The World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). Perlman carries himself skillfully in what must have been a difficult acting situation, as the layers of makeup and bulky costume undoubtedly made for some long working days. The overall atmosphere of the film also deserves special mention, and does an excellent job of capturing the book's unending darkness. At the risk of repeating myself, yet another highlight of Hellboy was the music itself, which thankfully favors a traditional score rather than the trend of bland, "flavor-of-the-month" alternative rock. Notice to Hollywood: soundtracks should not be a marketing tool.
Despite the overall success of the film's production, there are a still a few stumbling points along the way. Predictably, these problems are quite common with most comic-book related movies, though Hellboy keeps them to a minimum. For starters, the film's supporting cast isn't always up to the task of carrying their own weight. For every successful performance (Abe Sapien, Professor Bruttenholm), there seems to be at least one not-so-successful performance (Grigori Rasputin, Dr. Tom Manning). While the latter performances aren't terrible, they suffer from a lack of real development. Of course, the balancing act of characters doesn't always lend itself to equal time for everyone, but the pacing and overall story progression could have been ironed out a little more.
Director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) is no stranger to successful comic-to-film translations, as the second film would suggest. The genre demands a much different mindset and approach than traditional action films, and the skill of del Toro's directing really gets a chance to shine here. What Hellboy occasionally lacks in character development, it easily makes up for in action, pacing, comic relief, and the previously-mentioned stunning visuals. It's a wild ride, to be sure, but carries a certain charm that really makes it hard to hate. Overall, Hellboy is a genuine standout in the genre of comic book films, and has made a great transition to DVD as well.
This 2-disc Special Edition from Columbia/Tri-Star is a real knockout. Despite the domestic box-office worries, the film has been given a spectacular DVD treatment in every regard. From a near-perfect technical presentation to an overwhelming amount of bonus features, Hellboy looks to be another "Disc of the Year" candidate for 2004, and there's even more to look forward to before the year's end. Fans can also expect a Director's Cut of the film (which may fix the few minor problems with the film's pacing and development), and perhaps a few new bonus features will be thrown in for good measure. By all means though, this release is no slouch, and will really please any self-respecting fan of the film! There's quite a bit of ground to cover, so let's get started…
Quality Control Department
Hellboy is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. It's a great effort by Columbia Tri-Star, and should please anyone who liked what they saw in theaters. Mike Mignola's style has been faithfully reproduced here, from the high levels of black to the bold color of Hellboy himself. Image detail and contrast are excellent, but mild hints of compression artifacts and edge enhancement are the only elements that kept this from being a perfect transfer. All things considered, this is a stunning visual treatment, and it's hard to complain with the overall level of quality found here.
The audio presentation for Hellboy is almost flawless, and pushes the 5.1 Surround mix to the limit. From a surprisingly high amount of directional activity to a generous amount of LFE, this is a great-sounding disc that really does the film justice! Additionally, dialogue comes through with no problems, making for a very pleasing audio experience overall. While some viewers may moan about the lack of a DTS track (something that may be utilized in a future release), Hellboy boasts a terrific sound mix that easily ranks among the best of 2004. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are also included.
Menu Design & Presentation:
For this DVD release, Hellboy has been given a solid presentation from top to bottom. The anamorphically-enhanced menus (seen above) are beautifully designed, combining animated film montages with selections from the film's soundtrack. The 122-minute film has been divided into 28 chapters, and no layer change was detected. The packaging itself is another highlight: both discs are housed in a single-width keepcase, complete with an attractive outer slipcover (although I'll never understand the practical use of matching slipcover artwork). An insert booklet is also included, highlighting the contents of both discs in their entirety.
It's 2-disc sets like this one that give the term "Special Edition" a good name: from top to bottom, this release is absolutely packed with great stuff! Additionally, most of the bonus features are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (a trend that will hopefully become more popular).
Disc One kicks things off with a brief Introduction by Director Guillermo del Toro (along with a related Easter Egg found on the Main Menu), and follows up with a pair of Audio Commentaries. The first track, featuring Guillermo del Toro and Hellboy creator (and co-executive producer) Mike Mignola, is obviously the more technical of the two. These two have been friends for many years, and the wealth of information divulged during this track makes if an essential listen for any comic book buff. Among other highlights, there are many references made to Mignola's original work, making it obvious that any minor changes made for the movie were made without disrespect. There are also a few mentions of the upcoming Director's Cut release, although no specific answers are revealed yet. The second commentary features a nice portion of the cast, including Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Evans (sadly, John Hurt was nowhere to be found). It's an interesting listen---and makes for an appropriate contrast to the first track---but is easily the weaker of the two.
Call me greedy, but I'd have also loved to hear from an additional group of participants (especially the visual effects and/or design team). Still, it's tough to complain, as these two commentaries are great companion pieces to the film itself.
There's more to discover on the first disc, including a selection of Branching DVD Comics drawn by Mike Mignola and written by Guillermo del Toro. There are eight comics in all (the sixth, "Hellboy Scrapbook", is seen above), and were created exclusively for the DVD release. Although the "animation" of the stories comes off as a little forced at times, it's an interesting bonus for fans of the original series. As a sidenote, these comics are selectable during the film or via a separate Index in the "Bonus Features" section. Next up, we're treated to The Right Hand of Doom: Branching Set Visits, another option available via branching or a separate Index. These eight scenes include behind-the-scenes snippets from the film's production, and can be played individually or as a group (19 minutes total). The third branching extra is a look at the film's Storyboards (drawn by artist Simeon Wilkins), although the amount of artwork onscreen proves to be a little thin.
Hang on, there's even more! The next bonus feature is entitled From the Den, a brief cross-section of short films (apparently recommended by Hellboy himself!). These include "Gerald McBoing Boing", "Gerald McBoing Boing on Planet Moo", "How Now Boing Boing" and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart", and run for roughly seven minutes apiece. Also included is a Trailer for The Forgotten, which also doubles as a forced preview before the Main Menu (boo!). Rounding out the first disc is a selection of DVD-Rom Content, including the screenplay and a multitude of personal notes from the director. At this point, there's enough on here to trump most mainstream releases...but we've got another disc to go!
Disc Two begins with a short Introduction by Selma Blair, and is divided into several sections. The first section, "The Egg Chamber", kicks things off with The Seeds of Creation, a behind-the-scenes documentary that spans nearly two and-a-half hours! This "production order" documentary really pulls out all the stops, including details about the visual effects, makeup, production design, and everything in-between (seen above). It's one of the most comprehensive documentaries I've seen on DVD to date, easily standing beside such other notable documentaries as those found on the Black Hawk Down Deluxe Edition and The Lord of the Rings boxed sets. While the overall scope may be a little smaller than the others mentioned, it's a very interesting look at the production from start to finish. Next up are three Deleted Scenes (5 minutes) with optional commentary by Guillermo del Toro, which could possibly be included in the upcoming Director's Cut. Also included here are a series of 15 Character Bios and Filmographies, including credits for the cast and crew.
The next section, "Kroenen's Lair", starts off with Scene Progression (2 minutes), a brief stoaryboard featurette hosted by Guillermo del Toro. Continuing the theme is the Animatics section (6 minutes), another segment hosted by del Toro. In this section, a mixture of sketches, finished storyboards, and basic CGI are used to illustrate a few key scenes from the film, and can be viewed by themselves or with a film comparison. A third art-related featurette, Board-a-Matics (10 minutes), showcases animated storyboards to map out several of the film's action scenes. Lastly, we get four individual Storyboard Comparisons (10 minutes), also viewable by themselves or with a film comparison. NOTE: There are a number of hidden Easter Eggs in this section as well, so look carefully!
Moving along, we're treated to a Maquette Video Gallery, an interesting collection of 3-D character model representations ("Baby Hellboy" is seen above) that segues into the final section, "Bellame Hospital". This section focuses on the promotional material for the film (a personal favorite), including a selection of Trailers and TV Spots. Also here are a number of beautiful Poster Designs, including an Easter Egg that highlights some pencil sketches by renowned artist Andrew Struzan. As a footnote, this second disc also includes a section of Previews for upcoming Columbia/Tri-Star projects, including Spider-Man 2 and Resident Evil: Apolcolypse. Last but not least, there's an advertisement for the Hellboy website. Needless to say, this is an absolutely exhaustive set of bonus material...it's a perfectly well-rounded release that covers all the bases, and should please any fan of the film.
In a nutshell, it's going to be very hard for comic book fans to ignore Hellboy on DVD. Long-time fans of Mike Mignola's excellent work will definitely want to give this disc a spin, as the film does an excellent job of bringing these unique characters to life in grand fashion. If that weren't enough, this DVD takes the experience even further: from a terrific technical presentation of the film to a wealth of bonus features, Hellboy one of the most satisfying comic-related productions of the year. As mentioned earlier, a Director's Cut DVD (and accompanying gift set) will be available later in 2004, but don't let that hold you back from checking this bad boy out. It's a winner in every category, and one of the most pleasant surprises of 2004 thus far! Highly Recommended.
Other Links of Interest
The Official Hellboy Site (the book, not the movie!)
Superhero Hype (comic-related news website)
Guillermo del Toro Filmography at IMDb
Randy Miller III is a comic lovin' art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.