Hellboy: Sword of Storms (2006) — What do demons dream of?

“You just made the newbie face!”

Drew’s rating: If they ever do Fables: The Animated Series, I want to voice Bufkin. ‘Cause flying monkeys are cool.

Drew’s review: Tell me if this sounds familiar: Popular comic book character becomes the star of a live action film. It meets with some success and a sequel is commissioned, but while that sequel is shooting, interest in the character is at a premium. So to meet that demand and satisfy the desires of children and nerds worldwide, an animated version of the character is brought into being.

Oh yeah, and it isn’t Batman. No, I’m talking ‘bout Hellboy, the big red monster hunter. The decision to bring the big guy to animation was a wise one on the part of all involved: Hellboy is one of the most popular and recognizable of all indie comic characters, and his style of adventures (mythology meets slam-bang action) are both entertaining and fairly unique in pop culture. So while we wait for that live action sequel, let’s take a look at the first of two animated offerings starring everyone’s favorite paranormal investigator whose last name isn’t “Venkman.”

Returning home from a routine case (exterminating a Mayan bat-god and his zombies), Hellboy learns his coveted R&R is not to be… not when a Japanese historian goes missing after handling an ancient, mystical (aren’t they always?) scroll. But the big guy gets even more pissed when he picks up a possessed sword and is transported to a strange dreamworld populated by monsters of Japanese folklore. Now Hellboy’s got to survive and find a clearly labeled exit door while his B.P.R.D. buddies, pyrokinetic Liz Sherman and fishman Abe Sapien, contend with demon twins Thunder & Lightning and their dragon brothers. Er, did I mention Hellboy’s the one who’s actually good at fighting?

Animated it may be, but Sword of Storms is no second-rate knockoff, haphazardly slapped together to keep the brand name alive. Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and live action film director Guillermo del Toro both worked closely with director Tad Stones to bring the cartoon to life, and it shows. Most of the movie’s actors return to voice their characters, lending an air of consistency, and Ron Perlman is still a great choice for the title character — he provides the world-weary, slightly irritated tones of the working man’s demon hunter, perfectly illustrating HB’s gruff but loveable demeanor. Likewise, the animation is crisp and clean, with vibrant colors and some truly beautiful sequences. The music is also impressive, including decent sound effects and a particularly evocative tune during Hellboy’s encounter with a female demon. Overall, the sound and animation work in tandem to convey that blend of bizarre circumstances with a seen-it-all-before approach unique to Hellboy’s universe.

Still, while I mostly enjoyed the film, the plot didn’t engage me quite as much as I expected. Part of that may be due to the nature of the story; I’m more familiar with and interested in European folklore than that of the East, so the next animated film (featuring a vampire countess) is the one I’m really psyched for. Ironically, I think the surreality of the Japanese dreamworld partially works against it — it’s beautiful, but part of that beauty lies in its ethereal nature, which makes the danger feel just a little less real. We know Hellboy will get out alive, so where’s the drama? Still, Abe and Liz’s interlude mostly makes up for the big guy’s absence, though I hope we’ll see them interacting more with Hellboy next time around.

What is there left to say? If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve got at least some interest in Hellboy, and since Sword of Storms remains true to the spirit of the character, there’s no reason not to check it out. You may not find it the greatest animated film you’ve ever seen (Mask of the Phantasm is darn hard to top), but I’ll be surprised if you don’t get at least some enjoyment out of it. And if you like ancient folklore but haven’t jumped on the Hellboy bandwagon yet… well, here’s your chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Didja notice?

  • Aw, baby Hellboy is cute!
  • The floating head demons are called nukekubi and hail from actual Japanese folklore. Their scene is taken almost directly from the Hellboy comic story “Heads.”
  • The case Kate mentions at the beginning references two other Hellboy stories, “The Wolves of Saint August” (based on an Irish legend) and “King Vold” (drawn from the folktale “The Flying Huntsman”).
  • “Keep it away from water”? Was that a Gremlins joke?
  • The voice of the newbie agent is Phil LaMarr, who voiced Green Lantern on the Justice League cartoon.

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