"Hellboy Animated" Blu-ray: The Features are Heavenly, the Bonuses Have Gone to...
In between the two Hellboy live-action feature films, Starz Media and Film Roman took a chance on the new and growing category of direct-to-video animated movies with Hellboy Animated. Two movies were produced to keep the character in the public eye between the movies, but unfortunately their creative successes were not matched by financial ones. A third script was commissioned but never produced, and the animated property seems out of circulation for the foreseeable future. Earlier in 2010, both Hellboy Animated movies got a re-release on Blu-ray disc, but while they both benefit from the high-definition presentation, the release is a major disappointment that’s definitely not worth the investment if you already own the DVDs.
Both movies follow the adventures of the title character, a massive demon brought into the world by the Nazis during World War II but raised by the kindly Professor Bruttleholm (Broom). Hellboy is one of the core agents of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), along with Professor Broom, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, the amphibian Abe Sapien, and paranormal researcher Dr. Kate Corrigan. In the first movie, Hellboy: Sword of Storms, Hellboy and friends are called to Japan to deal with a pair of demons that threaten to release their dragon brethren and destroy all life on Earth. Then, in Hellboy: Blood and Iron, a simple investigation to see if a house is haunted suddenly turns dark and dangerous, as a threat from Professor Broom’s past has returned with blood on its mind.
At heart, Sword of Storms is an anthology tale, collecting a series of loosely connected stories under the umbrella of an overarching narrative. This means that the movie can have great breadth—as Hellboy wanders through a strange, mythical Japanese landscape, Liz and Abe must deal with a gigantic monster in the middle of the ocean, and Kate must search Tokyo for the professor who inadvertently unleashed the demons. Unfortunately, the anthology structure also means that Sword of Storms doesn’t quite hold together as a single narrative as well as it should. It is essentially a series of almost completely unrelated tales, and the connective threads between the three different stories are pretty thin. It is still immensely enjoyable, since it has the same wicked creativity and niggling sense of unease found in the best Hellboy comic book short stories. However, the pacing still feels a little bit off, leaping around from one vignette to the next without enough to link them.
Blood and Iron is a much tighter and more cohesive movie. The movie tells two stories in parallel: one set in the modern era as the BPRD uncovers the truth about the haunted house they are investigating, and one set in the past with Professor Broom confronting the vampiric Erzabet Ondushko in Transylvania. The movie is rooted in the horrific tales of Elizabeth Bathory, who reportedly bathed in the blood of virgin maidens to gain eternal life. Its gleefully lurid sensibilities also draw clear inspiration from the classic Hammer horror movies of the 1970’s. The two parallel stories mutually reinforce each other to form a strong single narrative, while also standing strongly on their own. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering that Professor Broom’s story is told in reverse, starting with his defeat of Ondushko and progressing backwards to show the events leading up to their battle. It’s all capped off with a tremendously enjoyable knock-down, drag-out fight between Hellboy and a mystical threat that’s well outside of his weight class.
What both movies have in common is splendid animation and vocal performances. The character designs by Sean “Cheeks” Galloway are a radical departure from Mike Mignola’s style, but they succeed remarkably well, predating his excellent work on the late, lamented Spectacular Spider-Man. These movies also managed to pull in the cast of the live-action movie to voice their characters with generally good results. Ron Perlman embodies Hellboy almost perfectly, with his world-weary gravel beautifully showcasing Hellboy’s blue-collar demon sensibilities. He reacts to the supernatural the way most of us deal with the ups and downs of daily life. Doug Jones is equally enjoyable as Abe Sapien, and Selma Blair manages quite well considering her generally flat intonation. Unsurprisingly, John Hurt is marvelous as Professor Broom in Blood and Iron, and James Arnold Taylor manages quite nicely as the younger Professor Bloom as well. Finally, Peri Gilpin is welcome in any animated project, and she does quite well as new addition Kate Corrigan.
Unfortunately, the Hellboy Animated Blu-ray doesn’t come as highly recommended as the movies. The visuals are notably sharper and brighter than the original DVDs, although the soundtrack seems to be the same Dolby Surround 5.1 mix as the DVDs. The problem is that this release contains absolutely none of the wonderful bonus features that were included on the earlier DVD releases. No commentary tracks, no behind-the-scenes featurettes, no alternate language soundtracks, nothing. There’s not even a scene selection menu once the disc starts. Your only options are to select which movie you want to play (although, thankfully, chapter stops were left intact). Considering the high quality of those extras on the original releases, their omission on this Blu-ray re-release is enough to earn it a thumbs-down, even at the lower price point it’s being offered at.
It’s a shame that the Hellboy Animated movies never seemed to find their audience on DVD, or that the powers that be don’t seem to interested in giving it another chance now that DTV animated movies seem to have carved out a successful niche in the home video market. However, it’s still quite disappointing that these two movies are getting such a second-rate re-release in high-definition. Hellboy Animated is definitely worth your time; I only wish I could say the same about the Blu-ray. Unless you’re a rabid completist, you’re going to be better off seeking out the original DVDs.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Starz Entertainment (which is the premium TV business with the Starz and Encore channels) rather than Starz Media as the corporate entity that produced the Hellboy Animated direct-to-video movies.