With comic book films proving to be one of the more fiscally remunerative genres in Hollywood and with the Sam Raimi-helmed wall-crawler films leading the pack it's no surprise that not only are old classics (like Batman and Superman) being spiffed up and trotted out again anew, but also the well of second- and third-tier comic characters are being garroted for potential summer smashes. Yet of all the comic book figures to be transposed to the big screen, seeing Mike Mignola's Hellboy getting cinematically adapted must have seemed one of the longer shots. Enter Guillermo Del Toro. Having already proved his box-office mettle with the success of Blade 2 and his talent with The Devil's Backbone, he was just hot enough to get the movie made something he'd wanted to do for over seven years. Not only was he able to film it, he was able to get the cast he wanted with Ron Perlman starring as the big red Hellboy himself. Yes, that Ron Perlman. Best known as the beast in the TV show "Beauty and the Beast," Perlman's the sort of actor never called upon to carry a picture, much less one with a budget. And with Selma Blair (as the fire-starting Liz Sherman) and Jeffery Tambor the biggest names in the cast, the film should have had (pardon the pun) a snowball's chance crossing the Styx at ever finding a mainstream audience. Surprisingly opening against The Rock's Walking Tall Hellboy won its opening weekend and performed well for a April release. Against the odds of the comic book genre (which churns out more misfires than good pictures), it's also a great piece of genre entertainment.
The film starts with Hellboy's origin: the presumed-dead Grigori Rasputin (Karel Rodan) is now working for Hitler in 1944, and he's opening a portal to hell to help win the war. But Roosevelt's supernatural advisor Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm (played by Kevin Traynor in '44 and John Hurt in modern day) is aware of Rasputin's plan, and with the help of the army stops Rasputin in time from unleashing anything major. But something did cross over: A young, bright red devil with a brick hand who loves candy bars and is nicknamed Hellboy. Cut to 60 years later, and Broom is deathly ill, while Rasputin's followers have found a way to bring him back to life. Hellboy (Perlman) developmentally still in his twenties, though 60 years older works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, tracking other monsters with the help of psychic fish-man Abe Sapian (played by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde-Pierce), in a very working-class-stiff sort of way. New to the team is the green John Myers (Rupert Evans), who's meant to help Broom but gets on Hellboy's bad side by being interested in Liz Sherman (Blair); Hellboy silently pines for her, but he can't find the words and knows that he is not classically attractive. Trouble lurks as Rasputin has unleashed Sammael a beast that, if killed, is replaced by two more. After a disastrous attempt to destroy the beast and its eggs, a tragedy occurs and the team is led by Tom Manning (Tambor) who doesn't like the freaks to Russia, where it turns out Hellboy is meant to go to reveal his true destiny.
The main element that makes Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy work on screen is a love and affection for the material. At times Del Toro may be too enthusiastic; as such, like an overzealous cook found on a dream project, there may be too many ingredients in the stew (the plot strains to include too much at times; the film is a semi-religious action noir with a romantic triangle and some horror elements), the love and hard work makes it forgivable. The biggest hurdle with a film like this is believing in creations that obviously are fake, but Del Toro's enthusiasm makes it easy to invest in the world. And he's helped immeasurably by Perlman, who quite simply is Hellboy. Having spent the majority of his career buried under prosthetics, he's one of the few actors who can make a 6'5" red demon who likes beer, pancakes, and kittens believable, while also being unfamiliar enough to not come with any baggage. For an actor who's been in the business for 25 years, it must be strange to have such a chance to shine now. The rest of the cast is quite excellent, and Del Toro is able to give the hell-beasts the closest anyone (outside of John Carpenter) has come to putting Lovecraftian imagery on the big screen, while also delivering exciting action, and some strong Catholic-based pathos into the mix. Shot for $66 million (when most comic-adaptation budgets run in excess of $100), part of the wonder is how they got it all done for so little, but much of the credit must go to cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who gives the film a rich look, and the color design of the film (in keeping with Mignola's art) is perhaps the film's greatest asset. Though it's understandable that films like this are rarely taken seriously by the Academy awards, Navarro's work here is so stellar that he deserves a nomination at the very least.
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Columbia TriStar's Special Edition DVD release of Hellboy presents the film in a spotless anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and thunderous Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Though a director's cut double-dip is advertised in the accompanying booklet, one wonders if they could improve on the supplements contained herein; this set is a monster special edition. Disc One begins with a 30-second introduction from Del Toro, and includes two audio commentaries, the first with Del Toro and Mignola, the second with Perlman, Blair, Tambor and Rupert Evans. The first disc also comes with two "on-the-fly" pop-up icon tracks, the first offering eight on-set visits (18 min.), the second offering eight "DVD comics" drawn by Mignola, both sets of which can be viewed in the bonus features section. There's also a storyboard subtitle track that sporadically accompanies the film. Also included on the first disc are four UPA cartoons (one assumes because Del Toro's a fan). The first disc also includes an Easter egg, and DVD-ROM content. On Disc Two there is a 30-second introduction by Blair, and a section called "Egg Chamber." In it are three deleted scenes (5 min.) with optional commentary by Del Toro, "Hellboy: The Seeds of Creation" documentary (2 hrs. 23 min.) that extensively covers the entire production history, and then cast, crew, and character bios, with the latter offering Mignola-drawn histories, and in the text section, their likes, dislikes, and biographies (all supposedly written by Del Toro himself, though he's credited about half of the time). The next section is "Kroenen's Lair." First up is "Scene Progression Ogdru Jahad" (2 min.) which shows early storyboards with a Del Toro introduction. Next up is an "animatics" section with an introduction by Del Toro and four animatic samples viewable by themselves or in comparison with the final work (7 min.). Then there's "Board-A-Matics," which also features a Del Toro intro for more computer-animated versions of storyboards (8 min.). And then there's "Storyboard Comparisons," which offer four multi-angle segments (10 mins.). Next up is the "Maquette Video Gallery," which offers six characters in their prototypical forms. The "Bellamie Hospital" offers a still gallery for concept art, and the final art used, and two trailers and nine TV spots (9 min.). Also included are bonus trailers. Dual-DVD slim-line keep-case in paperboard slipcover.