Hellboy has turned into quite the franchise. First the star of comic books, the character moved into prose fiction, then the live-action feature directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), and now the first in a series of animated movies. Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms aired on Cartoon Network last year. Its production was overseen by del Toro and Hellboy's daddy, comics legend Mike Mignola, along with Tad Stones, who previously helmed some of the Aladdin sequels and Buzz Lightyear for Disney, and director Phil Weinstein. Together they have come up with a fun action picture that should please Hellboy fans as well as give parents something they can watch with their older children.
In this new adventure, we pretty much get a solid two-fisted story in the Hellboy formula. Ron Perlman reprises his role from the movie, lending his voice to the big red guy as he jets off to Japan to investigate the bizarre disappearance of a folklore scholar and its connection to a mystical sword, the titular Sword of Storms. Joining him on the mission is a new import from the comic, the plucky Kate Corrigan (Peri Gilpin, of Frasier Frame), and the new creation of a befuddled psychic. No sooner has Hellboy found the sword than a fox spirit has lead him out of his regular world into a magic realm that is stuck back in the feudal period when the sword was created. Hellboy won't be able to get back to his own time and place unless he destroys the sword, freeing the demons Thunder and Lightning and thus allowing them to unleash a set of destructive dragons on the Earth. The beautiful ghost of a young woman who was caught in a love triangle in the past urges Hellboy to take this action so that she can move on into the spirit realm, and a host of beasties from Japanese folklore also try to bring the do-gooder down. Mignola and Stones are clearly having a blast digging through the bizarre Japanese myths, pitting Hellboy against black widow women, floating vampire heads, and seductive ladies with necks that can stretch to any length to entangle a man. Most fun, though, is the Kappa, a sort of water demon that is one of the strangest things you will ever see. (If you like this creature, I recommend the novella Kappa
by Ryunosuke Atukagawa, author of Rashomon. It's a unique piece of social satire.)
The weird creatures are all the more appealing thanks to the excellent animation of the series. The creative team has established a contemporary style that crosses Mike Mignola's angular, stylistic drawings with the Bruce Timm look of Batman: The Animated Series and Japanese anime (and maybe a little Disney, if only for a sly dig at the giant's Beauty and the Beast within the attack of domestic items). The characters and the quality of the visuals remains consistent throughout, with a good sense of acting, detailed backgrounds, and a vivacious depiction of the action. If I had one nitpick, I don't like the digital blur effects used in the fight sequences to convey a sense of swift movement. It seems unnecessary and actually calls more attention to the camera work, pulling the viewer out of the experience. Elsewhere, there are only a couple instances of a noticeable clash of Hellboy Animated's traditional hand-drawn look and the use of computers--such as when the plane with Liz and Abe is flying over the ocean, and then some of the effects around those two characters when they are stranded on the rocky island in the rain.
The voice cast is also quite good, making the characters really come alive. Ron Perlman is really an underrated actor. Part of his being chosen to play Hellboy in del Toro's live action flick was his expressive face, which doesn't lose any of its range even behind make-up. This cartoon also demonstrates what a strong speaking voice he has. Part of what makes Hellboy so charming is his hangdog approach to his work, and Perlman makes great use of every utterance of tired acceptance when another pummeling is coming the big guy's way. Only he could turn "Oh, crap" into a catchphrase. Once or twice, the animation isn't entirely on par with the acting. Usually it's when Hellboy has to interact with one of the human characters, like when he's hugging Kate. Or, there are times when a character is making a face or gesture that doesn't seem to correspond exactly with what is happening on the screen.
Excepting those small quibbles, this is some of the best non-theatrical animation I've seen in a while, maybe only beat out by Avatar, The Last Airbender.
Though Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms is made for a television cartoon channel, it's not exclusively for kids. Nor is it entirely adult. It's somewhere between Saturday morning kiddie fare and the level of grimness in the movie. If your kids saw the live-action Hellboy and were fine with it, then you can show them Sword of Storms. The violence isn't too gory, but some people do die and we see skeletons. The language is pretty tame, with "damn" and "dumbass" being as bad as it gets. You know your own children, so proceed accordingly.
Adults with a yen for action and strangeness will also likely get a kick out of Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms. And, of course, animation enthusiasts who need no such qualifications should snatch up this DVD in a heartbeat. I know I had a good time. It's great to see these characters again while we wait for another installment of the comic book and the movie sequel. No one has the same passion for oddball monsters as Mike Mingola and Guillermo del Toro, and I welcome any and all efforts from these gentleman. They seem incapable of being anything but pleasurable.
Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms is a knock-out production. The movie was created at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and it was given an awesome anamorphic transfer. The brightness of the colors were easy to achieve, I am sure, so I was more impressed by the dark and creepy scenes. Nicely done.
There are three sound options to choose from on the main program: a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English and 2.0 versions in English and in Spanish. The sound was designed well, giving us lots of boom in the action sequences. There is also Closed Captioning.
The producers went all out for this DVD. Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms has a boatload of extras, starting with an awesome full-length comic book inside the case. "Phantom Limbs" is an entertaining new adventure in the "animated" style by writer Jim Pascoe and artist Rick Lacy, colored by Michelle Madsen. There is also a new pin-up by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart, as well as a sweet cover by Jeff Matsuda, who did the designs for Jackie Chan Adventures. Kudos, as well, to Anchor Bay for the sturdy insert card with the chapter selection on one side and a gorgeous graphic of the Hellboy profile from the DVD cover on the other. (For those who care about these things, there is also a shiny slipcover for the DVD case.)
There are two alternate tracks for watching the main movie on Sword of Storms. You can choose an audio commentary with Mike Mignola, Tad Stones, and Phil Weinstein, as well as a "Follow the Fox" feature. Every time a graphic of the fox spirit shows up on screen, if you hit enter on your remote, it takes you to a short documentary about the folklore the script draws on. I chose to watch these two features together so that my first viewing of the movie was uninterrupted. The commentary is really good and stays completely on topic, giving a great insight into the development and final execution of this movie. Within that are the five "Follow the Fox" featurettes, four of which are from the "Hellboy Goes East" program and then the extra "A View From the Top." They contain contributions from the three gentleman who did the commentary, Guillermo del Toro, and a bunch of the animation staff, and they are illustrated with production drawings, storyboards, and comic book pages.
* "Origins" (2:30): Revelations about the myths that inspired the story.
* "A View From the Top" (5:30): A scene-specific look at the adaptation of the short comic book story "Heads" for a sequence in Sword of Storms alongside the original story that inspired Mingola.
* "Tale Spin" (2:50): An overview of the design of the spider woman scenario.
* "Prop Prefecture" (2:30): The design of the props, including the artifact spirits and backgrounds.
* "Samurai Songs" (3:00): Behind the scenes with Christopher Drake, who composed the music and played the entire score on his synthesizer.
All of these features are also accessible through the "Extras" menu, with "A View from the Top" being on its one with the other bonuses, and "Hellboy Goes East" getting its own menu. One complaint: Even with "Follow the Fox" turned off, the fox icon kept appearing on my screen. I couldn't select it, and it would disappear in something like 30 seconds, but it seems like if I want it off, it should be completely off. It's kind of distracting.
From the Extras menu, there are also four other programs. Most of these feature the production people from "Hellboy Goes East" and contributions from the various voice actors.
* "To Hell and Back" (9:45): Examining the history of the character and Mike Mignola's comics. It features an extended interview with Mignola, as well as time with his editor Scott Allie, colorist Dave Stewart, and publisher Mike Richardson.
* "A New Breed" (5:20): Redesigning Hellboy for animation with concept artist Sean Galloway.
* "Conquering Hellboy" (6:30): Behind the scenes at the voice recording sessions, including interviews with Perlman, Blair, Jones, Gilpin, and Phil LaMarr (Mad TV, Futurama).
* "Keepers of Hellboy" (42:30): A presentation from the 2006 Comic Con International, with Mignola, del Toro, Stones, Weinstein, Galloway, and co-writer Matt Wayne. In addition to the long discussion, they show an animatic of the opening sequence, production art, and then there is a short bit from the autograph session afterwards. If parents are still reading, be warned: del Toro drops the F-Bomb!
Multiple trailers can be viewed from the extras menu, but they also play as the DVD loads. All the same films are also advertised in the comic book, and they include the next Hellboy Animated film Blood and Iron (released this May), the Hellboy video game coming in the fall, the anime Noein, and some Stan Lee-produced cheesefest called The Condor, just to remind us all what bad comic books are like. (Yeah, I said it. Come and get me.)
As if this weren't enough, there are also DVD-Rom features. When you load in the disc, it gives you the option of going into the "interactive" mode or watching it with your standard DVD playing program. Unfortunately, using the interactive mode requires installing material onto your hard drive. Thanks, we all need to add more junk to our computers to view something once! These may only be temporary files, as I don't see any icons on my desktop or indications of new software in my program menu, but I also didn't get any notice of the files being cleaned up when I took out the disc. I don't know. It did claim that doing this would allow me to better access the material and get the most current updates--but what does that mean?
Anyway, once I got it loaded in, the DVD gave me a quick tutorial of what I would see. Essentially, you have the choice of watching Sword of Storms in a reduced window within a larger screen full of lots of enhanced-content options. A side menu allows you to switch between viewing storyboards that correspond with the scene playing or reading along in the screenplay. A live transcript of what is being said runs under the feature, and you can search on keywords to find where it appears in the movie, like if you want to find out how many times Hellboy says "crap." This function also works with the audio commentary. Additionally in this side menu, you can bookmark favorite scenes so you can jump to them whenever you want.
At the top, there are character icons for Hellboy, Liz, and Abe, all of which contain bookmarks for their top scenes. The screen also keeps a running tally of the number of bad guys these characters kill in Sword of Storms.
Drop down menus under the mini screen allow you to select audio tracks and the different bonus features available on the DVD. Above the menu, a sword icon also suggests different features to jump to while watching the movie.
Despite the annoyance of the rigmarole of having to load it into your computer, it's actually a really nicely designed function. It would be a great study aid for film and animation students. UPDATE: One of the people behind the DVD-ROM features started a thread on the DVD Talk forum explaining more about how this part of the disc functions. He pretty much clears up any reservation I had about the system, so enjoy this excellent bonus without concern.
Highly Recommended. Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms is an entertaining extension of the Hellboy franchise. The animators have stayed faithful to the earlier versions of the character, giving us a new adventure with some cool supernatural creatures from Japanese mythology. Strong, stylized animation brings the characters to life and delivers inspired action sequences, making for a quality feature rather than just some knock-off sequel. Extensive background materials make this a fun interactive experience, as well. A truly excellent DVD.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.