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Comic book movies continue to flood the market. By my count, we’ve had six so far in 2004, with a third Blade movie on the way. Studios have banked hundreds of millions of dollars on them every year since the release of X-Men in 2000. There are dozens in various production stages as we speak. The big names have already been used up. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Blade, X-Men, these are now franchises, and Hollywood always needs more franchises. Comic books are always there, waiting for them in colourful piles down in mom’s basement. With this onslaught, how can a single movie possibly distinguish itself? Does Hellboy succeed where so many have failed, or does it go the way of Captain America, Catwoman, and Howard the Duck?

The evil Kroenen gets ready to ice some uninvited guests
Film
During the tail end of WWII, the Nazis are becoming desperate. Hitler is putting more stock in his occult interests. It’s through this desperation that Gregori Rasputin finally finds the funding to construct a machine to bring about the end of the world. Through the machine he intends to create a portal to the other side. The ceremony, however, is interrupted by Allied soldiers, under the guidance of one Dr. Broom. In the attack, Rasputin is pulled into the void and the portal destroyed. But something got through announces Broom; the portal has been open too long.

Broom and the soldiers find a small demon with a stone arm cowering in sanctuary from the battle. Instead of destroying it, they take it into their group and Broom raises it as his own son. Named Hellboy, the demon now fights in the name of good, as a member of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence (the BPRD). Now, sixty years later, the surviving underlings of Rasputin have found a way to bring him back from the void. Together, they will try to reclaim Hellboy as one of their own, and once again attempt to bring about the apocalypse.

Hellboy was generally liked by critics and audiences when it was released, but few beyond the internet and comic book communities got really excited about it. Audiences that didn’t know the story behind the movie, mainly the comic itself, tended to dismiss it as post- Matrix and X-men fluff. This included some of the critics that liked the film. It’s hard to get on a soapbox for a film I feel is quite flawed, but some kind of defence is in order. The Hellboy comic and movie production pre-dates The Matrix and X-men movies by several years, and any visual similarities are somewhat of a coincidence, because the Hellboy movie does adhere rather strictly to the visual style of the comic. However, like The Matrix, both the Hellboy comic and film exist in a post-modern world based on previous movies, comics and stories (yes, including the original X-Men). This is true of a lot of the interesting Hollywood output in the last few years. Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, Cabin Fever, and especially Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow all carry the distinct smell of postmodernism and homage. Sky Captain is especially rich with this scent, as it is in fact a post-post-modern film, with homages to previous post-modern masterpieces like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. I suspect that a sudden influx of mainstream Dadaist movies must be on the horizon.

The point here is that Hellboy is supposed to feel a little derivative. But the story, like almost any great modern comic, builds on its influences and creates its own mythos. In preparation for this review I borrowed a few of the original comics to revisit them. The real beauty of the books, beyond the obvious visual masterwork, is the feeling that this is real mythology. Halfway through a few issues, the reader tends to take the ideas for granted, like the idea of mutation in an X-Men book, or the idea of a flying man in a Superman book. Creator/writer/artist Mike Mignola has researched actual mythology and other fake mythology like Lovecraft, along with various occult lore, with such geeky passion that one can’t help but go along with it. The stories feel familiar and authentic very quickly. The movie captures this feeling as well as any mainstream film probably could. A love story is introduced and there are several subtle character changes, but basically if director Guillermo Del Toro had remained any truer to the comic, he would have had a rather abstract, and much too challenging film in his hands. I agree with the changes, but the movie still doesn’t maintain as strong a presence as I would have liked. It falls about one or two great sequences short of classic status.

Dr. Broom shows Agent Myers around the BPRD
The movie starts very strong, and the sequence where the Allied soldiers attack and stop Rasputin remains one of my favourites this year. We are quickly, but not too quickly, introduced to several key players, including quirky and visually intriguing villains. In the span of just six films, Guillermo Del Toro has vastly improved visually as a director. He has found a distinct style in a time where young, hip directors tend to recycle each other’s images until most of us can’t tell one from the other. This sequence is his apex thus far and from this point the movie begins to slide, ever so slightly, downhill. We are set up with our characters and given a plot concisely and completely, and the story telling itself is most efficient. It’s hard to decide what exactly goes wrong, but the movie does begin to lose its thrill. The most tangible disappointment is the final reel. A spectacular showdown is set up, but the end result defiantly gave me the impression that they ran out of budget and film. The battle and aftermath are wrapped up far too quickly. Mild complaints aside, this is a beautiful film.

There was a conclusion drawn after the release of Daredevil that perhaps rabid fans should stay away from their obsessions when it came to comic book adaptations. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s film was widely regarded as a failure, and word had already spread that he got the job due to his fandom and deep knowledge of the material. The old saying, ‘You can’t see the forest for the trees’, was used a lot. Now every time a director is announced for a new comic production as a fan, other fans start to worry, and bring up Daredevil again. The fact that both X-Men films (arguably the best comic book adaptations ever made) were directed by someone who was new to the universe didn’t help quell this theory. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man films are good examples of why this generalisation doesn’t hold true, and I think that Hellboy should prove an interesting middle ground in this argument. The film is an obvious labour of love, and Del Toro is obviously as rabid a fan as they come. Some may say it is a failed attempt in the end, but the love is still in every specially crafted frame. Daredevil had too many technical problems to overlook, and the director was far too under experienced to undertake such a large project. The fact that Hellboy was even made by a major studio, and then released around Easter, to good reviews and box office truly speaks volumes for the fortitude of its creators.

I would also like to note that this marked the third (and fourth and fifth with commentary) time I’ve seen this film, and each time I’ve liked it a little more. The characters and wacky imagery have grown on me a little more, and the movie plays well on multiple viewings. I’d encourage anyone initially disappointed with their viewing to give it a second try somewhere down the line. I’d say too, that this is encouraging news for a sequel, which like Batman, Spider Man, and X-Men, will probably be a superior movie in story and budget. I’m excited that production has already begun.

Abe Sapein spreads his fingers and scans the room
Video
Hellboy was previously released as a two disc theatrical version. This disc contains thirteen minutes of extra footage, but the transfer is pretty much identical to the earlier release. Both utilise a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The new scenes blend perfectly into the presentation. Being a brand new movie, I’d expect Hellboy to have a better transfer than this however. It’s not so much that the transfer is bad as much as that it’s just not pristine. There is quite a bit of edge enhancement, especially in lighter scenes. Unlike most DVD transfers I’ve seen, the problems seem to multiply in light scenes rather than the dark ones. There is a lot of darkness in the movie, so most of the time these issues go unnoticed, but then when they do appear they tend to be ever the bit more jarring. However, the colours are beautiful and rich, and the detail is rather sharp. Like I said, great looking DVD, just not perfect.

Audio
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround is very nice. It gets big and loud at the exciting parts, and soft and subtle during the character development scenes. The monsters jump over and around the listener with thrilling abandon. The music sounds great, and thickly layered. Again, this is pretty much (beyond the new footage) identical to the previous DVD release. I enjoyed this audio presentation. Also available is a French 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track, and it sounds just as good, only in a language I don’t speak.

Extras
This three-disc set is rather exhaustive. There’s plenty of stuff to learn, and plenty of stuff to forget and never remember again. The producers of this set seem to have wanted to pick up on the same market that made The Lord of the Rings extended edition DVDs so popular. We start, as we should, with the first disc, where we are greeted by Del Toro himself, who explains what we’re in store for. The main special feature and reason why some of us waited for this version, is the extra footage. There isn’t much of it. The ads and box claim over thirteen extra minutes, but by my count it was more like twelve minutes and a few seconds. The biggest change is a reinstated subplot involving Rasputin’s eyes. While watching the theatrical cut the more attentive viewers may have noticed that Rasputin’s eyes are the first part of him to be sucked into oblivion. Apparently it’s not too hard to get your body and soul to return from the void, but eyes tend to stay there forever. Throughout a few deleted and extended scenes we get to watch Rasputin and his cronies deal with this problem.

There are also a few new scenes with Hellboy’s love interest Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic fire starter) and Agent John Myers, where we see them becoming a little interested in each other. Those who’ve watched the original DVD may remember most of the new footage form the deleted scenes included on the second disc. The rest of the extended footage is almost unnoticeable to anyone who hasn’t seen the film six or seven times. I had to watch the commentary track with Del Toro to be sure where the other seven minutes or so was. This either means that the new footage is so well crafted and reinstated that it blends seamlessly, or that it was so unnecessary that most of us aren’t going to notice it, I can’t decide. In any case, the new footage adds three-dimensionality to the supporting cast, but it does not contain anything that may have pushed the original rating into the ‘R’ category as some of us may have hoped (I know I was hoping for maybe a curse word or something).

Hellboy: Director's Cut
Del Toro’s previously mentioned commentary track is the best feature on the disc. It isn’t the usual ‘This is what we did while shooting this’ type commentary track, nor is it your usual Arnold Swarzenegger track (you know the ones, where he just states exactly what’s occurring on screen as it happens). Del Toro is a pleasure to listen to as he uses the time he’s been given as a forum for the history behind the film, including some of the troubles bringing it to the screen and most, if not all of its influences. Every influence is given an entire history, like Jack Kirby, H.P. Lovecraft, and Doc Savage comic books, as well as religious iconology and imagery. The track is very intellectual and articulate, and I’m amazed at Del Toro’s vocabulary level considering English is his second language. This is a very, very smart man, whom any real film fan would want befriend someday. My favourite story he tells is one about Southern US theatres that renamed the film ‘Hello Boy’ in their ads, and mysteriously dropped the film in its second week despite good sales figures. There is also a separate music only track (a feature I haven’t seen on a DVD in a while). Unfortunately I feel the films music, while good and perfect for the film, was a little too derivative of Danny Elfman’s super-hero work to garner its own track. Feel free to strongly disagree.

The other special features on the first disc can all be accessed either through their respective menus or while watching the movie through branching technology. These include ‘DVD Comics’ and ‘The Right Hand of Doom: Set Visits’. The ‘DVD Comics’ delve a little further into the comic lore, but are criminally short, consisting mostly of single screen, slightly animated back-stories. I did learn a few things about the characters though, for instance Kroenen, the Kung Fu-apt, self-preserving Nazi was the mastermind behind the construction of the actual inter-dimensional portal. The set visits are exactly what they sound like, raw, on-set footage of various action set-ups, etc. A lot of this can be found in a less raw form in the second disc’s documentary, and can be accessed when a little red Hellboy hand appears in the bottom, right hand corner of the screen. Then there’s a storyboard track, which I suppose falls under the multi-angle category rather than the branching category. If you like storyboards, these are some of the better ones you’ll see, though the artwork on the third disc is more impressive. This is all rounded off by some DVD ROM info, which is basically all the same stuff accessible here, just in a different interface.

Selma Blair (Liz Sherman) introduces the second disc to us. Those who own the original two-disc release may start to feel a little déjà vu at this point. However, this eerie feeling is not a side effect of what you may have eaten last night, or the lack of sleep from watching the same movie three times in a row. This just happens to be the exact same disc made available with the original release—exactly the same, every feature here. I’m sorry to say I found this to be a cop-out. Sure it’s great to see a three-disc, director’s cut DVD of a semi-experimental film even released, but using the same features and menus reeks of a money grubbing double-dip to me. Regardless of my personal feelings towards the carbon aspects of this second disc, it’s still a pretty well packed extra.

Hellboy: Director's Cut
The main events of the set can be found under the ‘Egg Chamber’ menu, and include the two-and-a-half-hour long documentary about the making of the film. It’s very informative, following the filmmaking process through all of its ins and outs (more ins in this case), and the footage is nicely edited down to a palatable viewing length. My only complaint has more to do with personal taste than anything else. I prefer narration in my making of documentaries, and while this one does have its share of talking heads, the raw footage remains pretty raw, and there isn’t much in the way of entertaining anecdotes (like on The Lord of the Rings extended editions). Events are presented as they play out, which is fine for some people; I just tend to lose interest a little more quickly while not being lead by a narrator. The editing does feel a bit random in parts, with a few sloppy segues into the next topic. The best part in the whole documentary comes when Del Toro sheds genuine tears of joy when presented with the Abe Sapein maquette. It’s a beautiful, candid moment of a passionate filmmaker, and wonderful to see. It’s also intriguing to see how quickly Del Toro and Mignola became best friends, their relationship seems almost preordained.

Then there’s the ‘deleted scenes’ (notice my snotty quotation marks). Call me crazy, but I don’t think these count as deleted scenes any more, seeing as they were reinstated for this director’s cut. The lazy recycling of the second disc from the original release is kind of embarrassing when the viewer realises that these are no longer deleted scenes. These include commentary by Del Toro, explaining why he deleted them, and how they’ll be reinstated with the release of the director’s cut. Hmm.

There are some pretty in depth cast and crew bios written up by Del Toro himself. Each character’s origin story is delved into with surprising amounts of detail, and it actually takes some time to get through everything. Under the ‘Kroenen’s Lair’ menu selection you’ll find several interactive features, including ‘Motion Board-A-Matics’, (more standard) animatics, storyboard comparisons, and 3-D maquette galleries. A lot of this stuff can be found elsewhere on any of the sets three discs. The storyboard option on disc one may move too quickly for some, while the animatics and maquettes may not feature enough in the documentary for others, so the options here are welcome, if not a little… well, I seem to use the word ‘moot’ a lot, but I think it applies pretty well here.

Under the ‘Bellamie Hospital’ menu we find the advertising. I love advertising. The original trailers and TV spots were all still pretty fresh in my mind, and I have to say that I’m very impressed with Sony’s campaign. Hellboy was a hard sale by anybody’s standards, and they pull off a feeling of excitement and wonder in the ads that most likely led the movie to a semi-successful box office run. Sure, they aren’t one hundred percent accurate in their portrayal of the basic plot and characters, and they do try to sell it off as some kind of post- X-Men super hero flick, but they still really deserve some credit. Then there’s the ‘Poster Explorations’, which feature some truly exquisite artwork, and were a pleasure to scan through. I wish more movies would go back to hand drawn or painted images for their posters, and I hope they’ll continue to utilise the idea of a print campaign as it was meant to be presented: in pieces, not just one release poster with a bunch of big movie star heads and a crummy slogan. Ending our epic second disc is a assortment of trailers for other Sony releases including: Seinfeld, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: The Animated Series, 13 Going on 30, (sigh) White Chicks, Kingdom Hospital, Anacondas, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Forgotten, and Kaena: The Prophecy (worth a look if you’re a fan of animation). And last a DVD ROM link that’ll take you to a Hellboy merchandise website.

Take a minute to stretch now reader, as we’re onto the third and final disc of the set. This disc is for the real fans. This is the disc that takes the most time and patience to explore in its entirety, so loosen those belts and relax. On this disc we are greeted by Hellboy himself, Ron Pearlman, who like Del Toro and Blair before him, would simply like to welcome you to the DVD. From Ron’s polite introduction we move quickly onto the silliest feature on the set: ‘The Cast Visual Commentary’. Here we get to watch stars Pearlman, Blair, Jeffery Tambor, and Rupert Evans sit in a rather uncomfortable looking room and watch the movie. No one seems to be enjoying themselves as they all fidget in their backless seats (can’t we at least give these people some easy chairs?), and try to sound enthusiastic about the film. Occasionally the film image will widen to take up the whole screen, rather than staying tiny in the corner, but why it does this at given times is anyone’s guess. Now it was fun when the Mallrats DVD gave us a multi-angle option to see the cast and crew during occasional moments in their commentary, but they didn’t take up the whole screen, and they were enjoying themselves. Seems to me that Selma Blair hadn’t even seen the finished film before this recording. It should be noted too, that the movie they’re watching is the theatrical cut, leading me to believe that this is the same commentary track featured on the previous DVD release without the video (I never listened to the cast commentary on the other release, so I can’t be positive). The only thing I can ask is ‘why did they put the effort into this?’

A vision of doom
From here we move onto some of the more pleasing features. There is a production workshops area that features several aspects of the filmmaking process, here covered in more depth than on the documentary. Basically these are supplements to the documentary, which is a supplement to the film itself (again with the post-modernism, or perhaps this is a transcendentalist DVD collection). The make up and lighting tests are good lessons for aspiring filmmakers, in that they prove practice makes perfect. Some of the early lighting ideas are pretty ghastly. These tests run roughly eight minutes and are entirely narrated by Del Toro. The ‘How To FX’ section is your standard before and after footage, complete with narration and run about six, four and three minutes apiece. Watching this section made me a little depressed on behalf of the artists as most of this stuff, especially the model work, went by so fast in the finished film that I didn’t even notice it. I have to admit that I hadn’t noticed that Liz’s skeleton glows through her skin when she uses her fire until watching this, and that is a pretty neat effect. Take note others who missed it the first time around.

Next up is raw footage taken from the 2002 San Diego Comic Con, where the film was announced and discussed in a panel that included Del Toro, Mignola, and Pearlman. Some of this was included in the documentary, but it’s presented here in a much longer version. The footage runs long enough that when selected the menu gives a kind of disclaimer, explaining that the footage is taken from fan video cameras, etc. The quality is very low, and I personally developed a bit of a headache watching it on my 42-inch HD TV. I’m not sure low quality video is meant to be blown up that big, into anamorphic widescreen. Del Toro leads the discussion, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He and the crowd have to egg others on a bit to get them talking, but everyone, even the uncomfortable looking Pearlman seems to be enjoying themselves and the positive attention. Basically it all boils down to a sales pitch, but damn if it isn’t a good one.

Quickly we sprint to ‘Scott McCloud: A Quick Guide to Understanding Comics’. This is a great feature for those still unsure of comics and comic related films being classified as true art forms. McCloud does a great job summing up his rather encompassing book (it’s a great book, I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject), and makes time for specific dissections of Hellboy. Like most features on this disc, this is pretty specific stuff, and probably not particularly entertaining to the average DVD viewer. Still moving, we get to the image galleries. There are a lot of images on this DVD, thousands, from on set photos, to Del Toro’s art (in note-book form, also available on the first disc’s DVD ROM), to pre-production photos and art, to product stills and Hellboy pin-ups by other famous artists. But the best gallery is Mike Mignola’s slideshow montage. It can be viewed piece by piece or as a slide show with Mignola supplying narration. I’d recommend the slide show, but warn you that it runs more than forty minutes. Mignola takes you through hundreds of images and ideas he’s had over the years for the movie and comic, including a much better idea for the opening of the eclipsed moon sequence, involving living shadows and moving scripture, rather than just some arm holes in a big block of rock. If these ideas had made it onto the screen, this may have been the best abstract action film ever made, and it’s a thrill (for me at least) to see what could have been.

As we stumble, weak and exhausted over the finish line, we find more previews for more Sony releases: Labyrinth, Mirror Mask (looks very disappointing), The Dark Crystal, and the two-disc director’s cut of Underworld. And there we have it, the final disc in the Hellboy three disc set. Personally, I don’t see myself ever watching this disc again, but I appreciate its existence as part of this set, and am sure that the true fans out there will love it. I’ll also note that everything, from the menus to the film to the features was presented in anamorphic widescreen, and I find that pretty impressive.

Hellboy and his new, dead friend
Overall
Those of you who already own the two-disc theatrical release of Hellboy would probably be content with keeping it. Those who are curious may want to borrow this edition from a friend or rent it some day down the line. Then there are those of you who wouldn’t want it any other way but this edition. The additional scenes don’t make much of a difference I’m afraid, but some of the expanded special features and a truly wonderful director’s commentary are submitted for your recommendation. Those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet and like the genre, give a try, and those of you who saw it once and weren’t too impressed give it a second try. And while you’re at it give the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie another try. It really doesn’t get enough respect, and like Hellboy, it’s damn true to the original comic.


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