Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms

Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms (2006)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Peri Gilpin
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Creators' Comic Con Panel, Trailers

"The world needs what we do. That makes us good guys. That's enough for me."

When Mike Mignola launched "Hellboy" on the comics scene in 1993, he was unprepared for the overwhelming praise and adoration his character would elicit from readers. He ignited the independent comic world with dark, angular artwork and tight, chilling tales inspired by various folklore from around the world. Over the next decade, Hellboy's popularity grew with every publication from Dark Horse Comics and peaked with the 2004 theatrical film from director Guillermo del Toro. "Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms" is the first of two original, stand-alone, short stories released on DVD that perfectly compliment the film and the comic while invigorating the entire experience.

A demon child named Hellboy was brought to our world by Nazi occultists attempting to bring about the end of the world. Rescued by American soldiers, he was raised by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BRPD) and used to battle strange, mystical threats wherever they threatened humanity. Stuck with a stone hand called the Right Hand of Doom, two stubbed horns of his own breaking, and a revolver that doubles as his best friend, Hellboy works with strange BRPD agents like the aquatic Abe Sapien and the nuclear powerhouse Liz Sherman (among others). Hellboy battles evil wherever it slips into our plane of existence and, in this animated tale, he finds himself stuck in a Japanese nightmare, cursed katana in hand, while the BRPD must battle demons released from an ancient sword in the real world.

"Sword of Storms" is a wonderful, animated experience that works on many more levels than even the feature film. It feels true to the source material and each scene flows just like an issue of the comic. If you've had the pleasure of experiencing the graphic novels or the mini-series from Dark Horse, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Hellboy is a religious X-Files with third world legends filling out its mythology rather than the standard Christian stories. In "Sword of Storms", we're given a slower, methodical tale that requires Hellboy to be more than a lunk of heavy-hitting fists. Much of the animated story feels like a Japanese fairy tale and only at times does its darkness bleed clearly into the forefront. The characters are also all voiced by their movie counterparts and it doesn't hurt that each one has the perfect voice for their vocal creation. Ron Perlman simply is Hellboy… no bones about it. It also helps that Mignola and del Toro were on hand as writers and producers and approved every step of the process, including the animation and character design.

Mignola was clear that he didn't want his artistic style animated and thrown on screen (which is a travesty if you ask me). Instead, the character designs rely on the same abundance of shadow and silhouette, but now include a manga-esque flair that really brings an interesting, action-fueled tenor to the characters that crafts living creatures that move with a natural flow. Luckily, the designs of the demons and ghosts are otherworldly and don't adhere to reality in any way: teeth jut out of jaws, eyes sink back into heads, and limbs hang gangly at each, scaly side. The top heavy anatomical designs, particularly with Hellboy, works flawlessly and gives the film a look all its own while maintaining nods to Mignola's original, moody artwork. Mainly, there's a lack of dialogue that rarely features any ongoing monologues during the action… it's a quieter superhero movie that perfectly reflects the blue collar, roll-up-the-sleeves attitude of Hellboy.

The story can drift into the simplistic at times and the BRPD plot suffers from its separation from Hellboy, but it's a solid first effort that made me excited for the next installment (featured in the trailers section of the disc). The animation is comparable to Japanese anime and comes with all of the good and bad of the genre. While everything is soaked in style and beautiful from moment to moment, the frame rate itself feels low due to fewer cells per minute. Anyone familiar with higher quality television animation, anime, or manga will know exactly what I'm talking about – it's par for the course and only a minor nuisance. The color choices, use of shadows, and design aesthetic are more than enough to counteract this complaint though and "Sword of Storms" is a treat to watch.

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and looks amazing on your television, even on a large screen (as long as you have a scaling DVD player). I never perceived any source problems and noise and artifacting are nonexistent, as I would expect with an animated feature of this length. I imagine the transfer is very high quality and it definitely shows.

Sound, on the other hand, is a standard animation affair and, while well done, won't knock you out of your room. As I mentioned before, the voice acting is top notch and a welcome bonus from every angle. The lower frequencies are deep but punchy, and everything exhibits the exaggerated sound design you'd expect from a cartoon. There's also a nice use of ambient noise, particularly in the Japanese dreamscape, and these moments are the most impressive audio segments of the DVD.

Supplemental features are packed onto "Sword of Storms" and most of them are worth your time, especially if you're a fan. There's a great featurette called "To Hell and Back" about Mike Mignola, the history of Hellboy in the artist's hand, and how he took the publishing world by surprise. It's full of interviews and feels more significant than the ten minute mini-doc it actually is. Next up are a series of featurettes covering the art design ("A New Breed"), the voice actors ("Conquering Hellboy"), and a panel discussion from the 2006 Comic Con ("Keepers of Hellboy"). The last of these is an especially good time and features the roll out of the animated version of Hellboy with Mike Mignola and directors Tad Stones and Phil Weinstein. Take a half an hour and check them all out!

More impressive is the audio commentary with Mignola, Stones, and Weinstein. I wish every film commentary felt like this one. Since it's an animated feature, there's little talk of the technical process behind the making of the film. Instead, an enormous amount of time is spent on character, story, and pointing out tiny details I missed the first time around. Even in the first five minutes, the three men point out a few character moments with the bat god that I had completely missed. I enjoyed watching the film a second time, with their comments, as much as I enjoyed it the first time.

The rest of the featurettes on the DVD concern animated sequences and how they were brought to life. They're nothing you haven't seen in the supplements of other animated films, but they're well constructed and a nice touch for fans. "Hellboy Goes East" is a quick documentary on the inspirations and Japanese stories that made the mythology of "Sword of Storms" so intriguing. I just wish this one was longer, digging into Japanese folklore and talking about its origins in relation to the Hellboy universe at great length. Finally, there's a handful of trailers for other comic property films as well as a clunky CG trailer for the Hellboy game due this fall. Considering that actual gameplay videos are online and looking great, I don't understand this trailer at all because it actually made me less excited about the game.

All in all, you should really consider picking up "Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms". The feature movie is a lot of fun, works as a great use of animation, and effectively echoes the tone of Mignola's comics. On top of this, fans of the film and the comics will be pleased with the special features surrounding this side story. Check it out – it's worth your investment.