On order to support (or cash in on, depending on your point of view) the theatrical release of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Anchor Bay in association with Starz Home Entertainment has re-released the two Hellboy movies in one nice package accompanied by a very cool Hellboy figure. While direct-to-video productions usually imply a poor film with low production values that didn't merit a theatrical release, that's not the case with these. Originally intended for DVDs (these did air on Cartoon Network prior to their release though that was clearly not the motivating factor for developing this property) both films, Sword of Shadows and Blood & Iron, are good movies that feature other adventures with Hellboy and his buddies at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
As is told at the beginning of each cartoon, Hellboy was the result of a Nazi experiment near the end of WWII. In a last ditch attempt to win the war, German parapsychologists summoned a demon in the hopes that he could turn the tide. What they summoned however was a young child. A little red boy with horns, a tail, and a right forearm made of stone. One of the Allied soldiers who helped to stop the Nazi ritual, Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, adopted the young creature and raised him as his own son.
Cut to the present day. Bruttenholm and Hellboy for the core of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD for short), a government-funded organization that fights occult threats where ever they may pop up. Aided by the amphibian Abe Sapien and the pyrotechnic Liz Sherman, Hellboy fights the creatures that hide under beds at night.
Sword of Shadows:
In this first animated adventure, Hellboy encounters a sword from Japan that is cursed. Back in ancient times two demons were attacking a kingdom. The ruler promised his daughter to the fiends if they would leave his people alone. They agreed, but things didn't work out as planned. A brave samurai was in love with the Emperor's daughter and hid her in a monastery. He then went to the appointed meeting place and fought the demons, destroying them both and capturing their souls in his sword.
Though the Emperor should have been pleased he wasn't. He had given his words to the demons and the samurai had caused him to break it. There was no way he could ever save face, so he prayed to the gods to punish the samurai.
In the present, the sword is causing problems. After finding an ancient scroll describing the story, a scholar on ancient Japan is taken over and tries to steal the sword from its current owner. He doesn't manage to get it, but the BPRD are called in. When Hellboy picks up the sword he's transported to another realm where he is presented with a problem: He can get back home by breaking the sword, but doing so will release the demons. Traveling through this strange land and occasionally aided by a mysterious fox, Hellboy has to battle several creatures who all want the sword.
Blood & Iron:
In his second animated adventure Hellboy is asked to investigate a haunted house. Now something like that is usually handed out to the rookies or lesser members of BPRD, but Professor Bruttenholm has a hunch. He not only sends his A team of Hellboy, Abe, and Liz, but he comes along himself, something that he hasn't done for a dozen or more years.
While on the investigation, Bruttenholm keeps thinking back on an earlier adventure: The first time he actually went out into the field and encountered evil. This back story is told in reverse, the ultimate battle and outcome is presented first, with the events leading up to the fight being told later. It's a rather odd but very effective device that gives viewers the most important information first, with the details and implications filled in later.
Once at the house, the team discovers that it is indeed haunted, with dozens and dozens of ghosts roaming the halls at night. The owner of the house has procured a collection of artifacts that used to belong to a vampire, and someone's trying to use them to resurrect that demon. What is worse however is that someone or something from the underworld is watching Hellboy, and they are determined to put a stop to his activities one way or another.
Both of these are fun cartoons that are actually much better than I expected them to be. The shows definitely capture the look and feel of the comic (more so than the movies do) and that means they're good. Hellboy (played by Ron Perlman who is reprising his role from the films) is the same sarcastic loveable lug we've all grown to love, and he adds a lot of light comic touches so that viewers know the cast and crew aren't taking themselves too seriously. He's actually a very good voice actor and brings the animated character to life.
The animation was also very good for a non-theatrical release. The frame rate was reasonably high and the backgrounds were nicely detailed. Though Hellboy and company were simplified to aide in the animation process, the look the animator's chose was close to Mingola's comics and looks very nice.
Of the two, the first one is a bit better production. The story is more engaging and it's a bit more mysterious. While the second feature is good also, the fight at the end goes on just a tad too long and the plot in needlessly complicated by the addition of a demon at the end.
Once nice thing about these two is that you can jump right in and enjoy the story, even if you haven't seen either of the Hellboy movies or read the comics. There's a brief recap at the beginning of each one, and there's not any continuity between the two episodes. The shows are appealing to (and appropriate for) both children and adults.
If you already have the previous releases, there's no reason to upgrade unless you really, REALLY want the cool Hellboy action figure that comes packaged with this set. These are the same discs that were released earlier.
These two films are presented on two DVDs which are packaged with a cool posable Hellboy figure.
These shows come with a DD 5.1 track, a stereo track, both in English, as well as a Spanish stereo track. I screened these with the 5.1 tracks and spot checked the stereo, and they both delivered the goods, though the multi-channel track was more impressive and enveloping. In the battle scenes the audio really came to life with crashes and the sounds of destruction coming from all corners. In the more sedate sections the audio was also very good, with tight crisp dialog and a nice amount of range.
Both DVDs feature an immaculate 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The colors are strong, the blacks are nice and inky and there are no significant digital defects. These are very nice looking discs.
Both of these discs have a great amount of bonus material that really adds a lot to the package. Each movie includes an audio commentary track with creator Mike Mignola, writer Tad Stones, the directors (Phil Weinstein for the first film, and Victor Cook for the second.) Both of these were fun and entertaining. I was sure the second one would drag, with everything interesting having been said in the first one, but that wasn't the case at all. The creators discuss the origins of the stories and fokelore that they drew from, production difficulties, and general information about the shows.
On Sword of Storms there is also "Follow the Fox" feature where viewers, at certain points in the film, can select a fox icon and be taken to a special feature that explains a bit about the scene that they were watching. These features are also available in the "extras" section and jumping to them in the middle of the movie is more than a little distracting so I'm not a big fan of the feature.
To Hell and Back is a 10-minute look at the Hellboy comics and
their history with interviews with the creators, A New Breed
looks at how the character was redesigned for animation (5 minutes) and
Conquering Hellboy takes a peek at the recording sessions where
the actors recorded the audio track. A View From the Top is
a look at the flying head sequence, while Hellboy Goes East is a
four part look at some of the Japanese folklore incorporated into the film.
There are also extensive DVD-ROM features for those who want to pop the disc into their computer. These include a script, the option to watch the storyboards that were used, and links to the best fight scenes. I'm not a fan of this type of thing generally, but I can see how some would enjoy it.
Blood and Iron also has a nice selection of bonus features, starting with Reversal of Fortune: Professor Broom's Story which presents the flashback scenes from the movie in chronological order. Like the similar option on the Memento DVD, I thought this was kind of pointless.
Tales From the Tomb: A Look Inside Blood and Iron is a 13 minute making-of featurette which is followed by the nice, but short (3 ½ minutes) Hellboy animated story Iron Shoes. The second disc is rounded off by The Penanggalan a comic where the pages are presented on the screen.
Each disc also comes with a small sized comic packed into the case with another Hellboy adventure.
I really enjoyed these two shows. Both of them were enjoyable and exciting and managed to reproduce the best aspects of the movie: an imaginative sense of fun. These are the same discs that were released earlier with the addition of a Hellboy figure so people who purchased these originally don't need to upgrade but fans of the movies or comics that missed them the first time around should seek these out. Highly Recommended.