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Hugh Jackman plays Vampire Hunter D in "The London Assignment"

The latest movie tie-in anime, Van Helsing: The London Assignment, is a worthy prequel to the new Hollywood feature. While the reviews have not been overly kind to its big brother, London Assignment crafts a simple but quite thrilling tale. Not obviously an anime production and not quite a feature, animation fans might better imagine it as a dark, PG-13 episode of Warner Bros.’ Batman: The Animated Series.

Van HelsingThis project follows on the heels of last year’s The Animatrix, the anime companion to The Matrix Reloaded. As with that film, this one fills in some details of what went on before the movie story begins, and popular anime studio Production I.G. worked on both productions. The similarities end there, however, as the ambitious Animatrix explored several divergent visions of the Matrix universe while London Assignment is content to serve as a scaled down dress rehearsal for Van Helsing‘s theatrical bow. Are these productions intended to extend Hollywood franchises into the realm of anime to create a new revenue flow, or are they just promotional fodder for the feature films? London Assignment tends strongly toward the latter purpose, but it holds the promise of so much more.

London Assignment recounts one of monster hunter Van Helsing’s early missions, in which he first encounters one of his many nemeses, the foreboding Dr. Jekyll. Notably, the central plot basically superimposes Jekyll on the Jack the Ripper legend and adds a touch of black magic for good measure. It transpires that young women are turning up dead in the streets of London, slain in the night by royal physician Dr. Jekyll (or his alter ego Mr. Hyde) who is stealing their souls to restore the aging Queen Victoria to health. One night Van Helsing and his hapless assistant Carl lay a trap for Jekyll, but he manages to escape with the Queen in tow and the chase is on – across rooftops, on a train, through sewers, and in a balloon. Barely half an hour long, the whole thing whips by at fantastic speed.

The characters are pretty much as they are in the feature film, with the same actors doing the voice work. This lends the picture one of the strongest casts I’ve heard in anime, and makes for a very cinematic feel. Hugh Jackman delivers a gruffly heroic, if understated, Van Helsing; David Wenham (or Faramir for the Tolkien crowd) is the enjoyably goofy sidekick Carl; and Robbie Coltrane provides a menacing turn on Mr. Hyde.

As mentioned, London Assignment is nearly without the artistic styling typical of anime. In animated form, the figure of Van Helsing himself cannot help but remind one of Vampire Hunter D, but that doesn’t go for the overall design. This could very well be a contemporary Warner Bros. action cartoon, albeit with snazzy special effects and a greater focus on realism. For the most part, the animation is competent but unspectacular, dark but not overly so, and looks as if it might be carried off on a TV budget. The exceptions to this are two virtuoso action sequences that turn on the CG and pull out all the stops. One of these is a breathtaking chase scene on, in, and around a train as it hurtles through a tunnel. The choreography and presentation are so slick here, you’ll swear you’re watching an outtake from the Matrix. With the possible exceptions of the Cowboy Bebop film and Animatrix, nothing I’ve seen in anime comes close.

I’m not sure what this featurette will mean for the mature action animation market in the U.S. The Animatrix DVD was not exactly a sales sensation, and the Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop films were in and out of theaters in the blink of an eye. It seems that, despite the increasing application of anime sensibilities to such live action films as The Matrix and Kill Bill, a certain stigma remains attached to anime itself. Maybe it’s considered too childish for adults and too violent for kids. I don’t know what it will take to get over this hump, but attaching prequel projects like the London Assignment to major Hollywood films strikes me as having a lot of crossover potential with the right marketing push. Unfortunately the DVD itself has received little or no promotional support at all.

The special features reinforce the notion that this DVD is intended primarily as an advertisement for the film. It has featurettes, neither being of which are of much intrinsic interest, on the making of the Van Helsing movie and video game. For aspiring animators out there is an animatic-to-animation featurette that walks you through the storyboard of several scenes with the final animation playing in the corner. There’s not much to learn here as they are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and a look at the early concept art would have been much more interesting. As is the case with most anime DVDs these days, a detailed discussion of the art design and animation techniques is sorely missed.

Only a brief featurette on the making of London Assignment has much entertainment value, and it mainly focuses on the challenges the cast faced in bringing their characters to life in animation. Hugh Jackman comments how there is a tendency to push things way over the top in voice acting, since one is unable to use one’s eyes or expression to communicate. If that is so then they must have run out of coffee early in his recording sessions.

Those who loved the Van Helsing theatrical feature (don’t worry I won’t tell anyone) and are looking for a similar production, are likely to be a bit disappointed with the diminutive scale of London Assignment. Though the story is perfectly serviceable (if hardly new), the running time is so brief that there is barely any time to flesh out the character, plot, or setting details. What we’re left with is really just the bare bones. That said, the action sequences are absolutely fantastic and probably worth a rental on their own. Those hoping for something a bit meatier should check out the equally exciting (and much creepier) Vampire Hunter D movies. If rather slight for a movie, London Assignment makes a great pilot episode of what would be a natural series for the likes of MTV or HBO. And hey, maybe it is. I know I’d tune in.

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