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. 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.
Especially the second time around.
Director's Cut Notes:
Although the original cut was no slouch, this newly-created Director's Cut helps to smooth out the edges a little. First of all, it's worth noting that although this film is now "Unrated", it doesn't contain any over-the-top violence or nudity (thankfully, it hasn't been marketed to suggest this). Among other additions, this new cut fleshes out the supporting cast---particularly Liz and Myers---while also adding a bit of new footage with Rasputin and Ilsa (seen above). There's also some quick cuts that improve the scope of certain areas (including the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Rasputin's lair), all of which result in a more epic, seamless flow to the film. In all, there's roughly 15 minutes' worth of new footage added for this Director's Cut, which now clocks Hellboy in at a beefy 132 minutes. While I'd have liked to see even more attention paid to the supporting cast, it's hard to complain with the notable adjustments made here. While these improvements still don't make for a perfect film, I'm confident that Hellboy fans will agree that this Director's Cut is the superior of the two.
For this mammoth 3-Disc release, Columbia/Tri-Star has given us more than just a new cut of the film: they've added at least a disc's worth of new special features! Only a handful of the original extras have been done away with (the main one being the original director/creator commentary), and---in most cases---a few improved replacements have been thrown in as well. Although the technical presentation remains the same as the Special Edition, it was a terrific first effort that didn't offer much room for improvement. All of these new features and other improvements will be covered in detail below, so grab a sandwich and a comfy chair. Let's see how this whopper stacks up, shall we?
NOTE: This video and audio presentations are identical to that of the original DVD release.
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 (Note: the menus are the same as the original two-disc release, but I grabbed a new screen capture). The 122-minute film has been divided into 28 chapters (with helpful indications of where new footage has been added), and no layer change was detected during playback. The packaging itself is one of the best I've seen from a mainstream studio. For starters, each of the three discs gets its own clear slim keepcase, with themed artwork from the original release's front cover. All three cases are housed in a sharp-looking slipcover that features terrific new artwork and a comprehensive list of the included features. Overall, it's a top-notch presentation that really stands out on the shelf.
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 new Audio Commentary by del Toro. This commentary was recorded specifically for the Director's Cut, and features a nice amount of new information straight from the horse's mouth. Among other things, del Toro thankfully goes into a bit of detail about why certain scenes didn't make the Theatrical Cut. Although the commentary found on the original release---which also featured Hellboy creator Mike Mignola---has unfortunately been excised, the original cast commentary can now be found on Disc Three (albeit in a slightly different fashion). Although I wish the original cut of the film (and subsequent commentaries) were available here via seamless branching, the replacements are excellent in their own right.
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). We also get a brand-new Storyboard Track featuring tons of new images! The first disc had a very skimpy storyboard section, so I'm happy to see this much-needed improvement.
NOTE: This second disc is identical to that of the original DVD release.
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 (present in the Director's Cut, of course). 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 storyboard 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: Apocolypse. Last but not least, there's an advertisement for the Hellboy website. Hey, wer'e almost there...only one more disc to go!
Disc Three is all-new to this release, and begins with a brief Introduction by Ron Perlman. Also here is the Cast Commentary from the original release, now presented in video form (the film plays in a small corner of the screen). Just for the record, this 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). Next up are a series of production workshops that include Makeup and Lighting Tests and Visual Effects How-To's (7 and 12 minutes, respectively). Both featurettes offer new layers of insight, and I particularly enjoyed Guillermo del Toro's comments during the makeup tests...it's obvious he really wanted to preserve Mike Mignola's style on the big screen. Next up is a portion of the Comic-Con 2002 Q&A (24 minutes), which took place before the film's production. This interview session features del Toro, Mignola and Perlman, who do a great job of handling the crowd. I especially enjoyed the final comments, which include a number of responses to silly questions from the studio executives.
Next up, we're also treated to a few words from comics guru Scott McCloud during A Quick Guide to Understanding Comics (12 minutes). For the record, McCloud is creator of such books as Zot! and the seminal how-to guide Understanding Comics. He does a great job of informing the viewer in a very short time, although most die-hard comic fans won't learn anything new. Also here are a few new Image Galleries, including a terrific amount of pre-production artwork by Mignola (presented as a 40-minute slideshow with Mignola commentary). There's also a look at the Director's Notebook, and a nice section of Hellboy Pin-Ups from various notable comic book artists. Last but not least, we're given another batch of Previews which include Labyrinth, Underworld, and The Dark Crystal. On a related note, there's also a nice printed bonus included with this set: an Extract from the Diary of Grigori Rasputin. It's nice to look at, but doesn't serve as much more than eye candy.
From top to bottom, I'm happy to report that this Director's Cut really takes the cake for bonus features. The first release was jam-packed, but this version raises Hellboy to the level of other top-tier DVD releases like The Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition. For all intents and purposes, this massive 3-disc set is the definitive version of Hellboy, and worth the upgrade if you're a fan of the film. To use a long-running comic book cliche: 'Nuff said.
Hellboy: Special Edition was good, but this release is even better. Although the technical presentation remains the same, the additional footage and new bonus features make this one worth every penny. The slick DVD presentation and overall care put into this bad boy make it one of 2004's best releases and a must-have for any fan of comic books and great supernatural action films. In fact, the only thing keeping this release from earning DVD Talk's highest rating is the relatively quick double dip (though it was thankfully advertised well in advance). If you own the original Special Edition, chances are you'll want to upgrade (but you'll only want to ditch your old copy if you can live without the director/creator commentary). The Director's Cut of the film adds a nice layer to Hellboy and the new extras really put this release over the top. If you haven't added Hellboy to your collection yet, this is the version to hunt down. It really shows how far the format has come in the last few years and it's the best comic-based DVD package to date. Very, very Highly Recommended.
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.