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A folklore professor collects an ancient Japanese scroll and is unwittingly possessed by the ancient demons of Thunder and Lightning. When the possessed professor attacks an antique sword collector the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defence quickly dispatches a team of agents to investigate. Team leader Hellboy (Ron Perlman) finds the cursed samurai sword the demons seek, and is transported to a supernatural dimension of ghosts, monsters and feudal mayhem. Now, while pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and aquatic man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) search in vain for their friend, a lost and cranky Hellboy must find his way home, and stop the demons from escaping into our dimension.

Hellboy: Sword of Storms
Apparently it was animation week at the Powers homestead. After viewing some sub par animation ( The Invincible Iron Man), and some great animation ( Avatar: The Last Airbender), it's time for some slightly above average animation. In a happy little piece of happenstance (and a short tale entirely unrelated to the criticism of this film), I found this DVD on my doorstep (in the snow again) on the very Friday I was on my way to see Pan's Labyrinth. Inside the curiously lumpy envelope was a little Abe Sapien toy. Those living in the Twin Cities of Minnesota might know that this was significant because the man who played Abe Sapien (physically at least), Doug Jones, was in town to introduce Pan's Labyrinth, in which he played the title character. Isn't that cool? No, not so much? Well I thought it was pretty cool.

Hellboy is a great comic book character. Created by master and entirely original comic artist Mike Mignola, the character and his environment was really just an excuse for the man to tell stories in a pulp/mythological setting. Once the character found his voice (a grumpy one), the stage was set for one of modern comicdom's most unlikely success stories.

The recent theatrically released film, staring Ron Pearlman as the title character, and directed by the maestro of pulp imagery Guillermo del Toro (who also directed Pan's Labyrinth), by all logical means shouldn't have even been made by a major studio. Never the less, it was a modest financial success, and a sequel is now in pre-production. I reviewed the giant director's cut DVD as one of my first pieces for this site, and I like the film a bit more every time I see it.

Hellboy: Sword of Storms
There are so many adventures in the realms of pulp fiction, pop culture, and ancient mythology for Hellboy and the BPRD, that two theatrical films just weren't going to be enough, so Cartoon Network and a collection of other studios decided to hire the character's creator and the minds behind Jackie Chan Adventures (a surprisingly entertaining series), and Buzz Lightyear to make a few feature length animated adaptations. Hellboy: Sword of Storms is the first of these adaptations, and the creative team is off to a decent start.

The film's style reminds me of The Batman (not to be confused with Batman: The Animated Series) and Jackie Chan Adventures, both of which the production crew here had a stake in. Both series feature character designs by Jeff Matsuda, and Hellboy Animated designer Sean Galloway's style is similar, only texturally softer. The creative folks behind the show, including Mike Mignola, wanted the Hellboy animated universe to look very different from those of the comic and film universes. Mignola's style bares some influence on the show, and it would be cool to see his style animated (hold that thought, readers), but I have to agree with the redesign here.

The animation budget has some obvious limits, and the animation itself varies throughout, but the strong designs and art direction make up for a few recycled or skipped frames here and there. I can't fault the production on shortcomings because I know from the disc's extras that they didn't have the time or money to make a Disney level release.

The acting is unsurprisingly strong all around. Animation fans should know to expect good voice work from the likes of Ron Perlman, Peri Gilpin, and Phil LaMarr (though I bet no one will be able to guess what character he voices without checking the credits), and these standbys do not disappoint. The wildcards here are the live action film's actors Selma Blair and Doug Jones. Poor Doug Jones didn't get to voice his performance as Abe Sapien in the live action film (that job was handled by David Hyde Pierce, minus a credit). Jones proves here that he has a warm and amusing presence (he gets all the best lines) even when his lanky, real life frame is hidden from the camera. Blair has always been a decent actress, but has no inflection in her voice, and her performances really must be seen to be appreciated. Her attempts at adding life to her monotone are admirable, but the character ends up sounding as if she's being voiced by an entirely different actress.

Hellboy: Sword of Storms
The writing is where the problems come in. According to the commentary, the film was originally written to be much shorter. Entire subplots were added late in the game, and unfortunately it shows. Some of these 'additional scenes', most of which feature characters that aren't bright red, are actually the best in the film, but others are inorganic, and often these additional plotlines go nowhere. The films end is clumsy, sluggish and unsatisfying, and it loses so much of the essence of what makes the characters and universe so special.

All these shortcomings are forgivable because this is the first episode, time was short, and most animated good series tend to go through similar growing pains. I believe that time and practice will be good for these films (the second one is coming out pretty soon). Negative forces obviously hurt this one, but it still manages to be genuinely funny and original piece of entertainment. It's not too adult, not like the comic, but isn't insulting to adults either. There's some minor language here and there that makes the film more 'realistic' (honestly, when the end of the world is neigh, 'Darn it' doesn't quite cut it).

Video


This appears to be an interlaced transfer, which means there is some combing, but it's kept to an even minimum. The overall clarity of the image is sharp, and the film is free of the edge enhancement that plagues other lower budget animated features. Depending on the brightness of a character in relation to its background, there is some occasional edge noise, mostly in cases of light on light. Hellboy's colour, red, varies throughout (on purpose, as red is a hard colour to set composition with), but is often blocky and noisy depending on brightness and frequency. The anamorphic enhancement is a big plus though, and generally speaking this is a very 'theatrical' presentation.

Hellboy: Sword of Storms

Audio


Hellboy: Sword of Storms comes outfitted with a very large Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. There aren't too many overt moving sound effects, but all the channels are busy throughout. Dialogue is centred and clear, and Ron Perlman's gravely voice will give your subwoofer a decent workout. Monster noises and sound effects are of the sound bank variety, and cheapen the overall presentation a smidgen. The music is huge for being entirely keyboard based, and even strikes some original notes when not using the memorable Hellboy live action film's cues.

Extras


This is one of the more loaded single disc sets I've come across in a while, and probably the best treatment of an original TV animation on DVD I've ever seen. I recommend starting with the audio commentary, which features the film's two directors and creator Mignola. Tad Stones, the supervising director/producer rules the track, but is a joy to listen too. Stones is full of funs facts on the production, as is the other director Phil Weinstein, and both are not afraid to point out their shortcomings. It is this insistence on making the films missteps clear that convinces me that the next feature will be a step up. Mignola is mostly just funny, and spends a lot of time simply marvelling at the finished film, but is nice to have on hand for the greater questions about the character.

While watching the commentary the 'follow the fox' option is a nice edition, especially if you haven't watched all the behind the scenes footage already. Like the 'follow the white rabbit' option on the old Matrix DVD, a cartoon fox will appear in the lower right hand corner at key areas of the film. If the enter button is pressed the viewer will be treated to a pertinent piece of behind the scenes information about the film. The problem is that this footage can be found elsewhere on the disc, but it's still a nice feature, and the segments are mostly worth your time.

There is a featurette about the genesis of the Hellboy character and his world called ‘To Hell And Back: How Mike Mignola Created Hellboy (Part I)’. If you have the director's cut release of del Toro's Hellboy movie, this feature is not necessary. It's an entertaining little slice of Mignola's mind, but doesn't get into any of the depth del Toro does on the aforementioned director's cut's commentary. Think of it as the cliff's notes version of the character history, though the mysterious Part I seems to indicate further info on future releases.

Hellboy: Sword of Storms
‘A New Breed: Creating The New Hellboy’ is a crash course on the design and structure behind the scenes of this animated film. The commentary track gives a bit more info, but this is accompanied by the words of more than just the producer, director, and creator. The follow-up, ‘Hellboy Goes East’ is the stuff linked to the follow the fox feature. These are more specific to this particular film over facts about the animated universe in general.

‘Conquering Hellboy: The Actor's Role’ is short, but briefly covers the three main actors, Perlman, Blair and Jones. Unfortunately the actors aren't given much time to speak for themselves, as the producer/director is again our guide.

‘A View From The Top: The Heads Sequence’ is also linked to the feature with the follow the fox feature, but can be seen on it's own as well. This featurette covers a single scene of the film which is based very specifically on a real Japanese folk tale, and was featured in one of the original Hellboy comics. The comic to film comparison is a nice touch.

Next to the commentary, the coolest extra is the ‘Keepers of Hellboy: A Comic Con 2006 Panel Discussion’. This features all the major players, director, creator, conceptual artist, writers, even producer del Toro (who shows up a little late. There's a lot of content overlap, but the footage isn't nearly as raw as this kind of footage often is, and the presentation slides are enlarged for us, the viewing audience. Q and A sessions and discussions can go on way to long, but this one is just right. Tad Stones keeps things moving and answers pretty much every question the audience could've thought of on the spot. We even get a rough animatic version of the opening sequence.

This impressive little collection is ended with an art gallery and a series of Stars Entertainment trailers, including one for the next Hellboy animated adventure (and in this universe John Hurt's character is still alive).

Hellboy: Sword of Storms

Overall


The film itself has some structural defects, and the animation is a little bit cheap, but I can really see this as the pilot episode of a very lucrative series of animated films. There's a lot of material around the world for these creative minds to explore, and the relatively affordable realms of animation seem a good outlet. The DVD can't compare with some multi-disc collections on the market, but features just about as many extras as one could possibly want from the material. I recommend a purchase for fans (it's got an attractive price), and a rent for the curious who missed the Cartoon Network début.

For kids, this is a heavy PG or very light PG-13, there's a lot of minor curse words (‘crap’, ‘pissed off’, ‘damn it’), some bloodless violence, and some disturbing images (like severed heads trying to eat Hellboy). Cartoon Network played it pretty late when it aired, but before the Adult Swim block.


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