Marvel Comics and DC Comics have been in a war for superhero dominance in the comics industry for decades, crushing every other company that's sprouted in their shadow -- every company, that is, except for Dark Horse Comics. Born into the world of independent publishing in 1986, Dark Horse focused exclusively on fantasy and science fiction, offering an appealing alternative to fans of the superhero genre. Their success was entrenched with an expansion of the 'Star Wars' universe and the creation of original properties like "Usagi Yojimbo," "The Goon," and "Sin City." But it was the stark art and Lovecraftian tales of Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" that first helped the publisher gain critical strength and legitimacy in the world of comics.
In 2004, Academy Award-winning Mexican director Guillermo del Toro ('Blade II,' 'Pan's Labyrinth') released his filmed adaptation of 'Hellboy' to theaters worldwide. Great timing and the director's widely publicized love of Mignola's work made the film possible -- before recent achievements in character CG, "Hellboy" was considered to be an unfilmable property. But showcasing an incredible practical makeup and prosthetics application on its two lead characters, the film impressed with its visual impact and surprisingly won the support of mainstream film critics.
The film's plot sounds way more complicated than it ends up being. A young demon is accidentally summoned to Earth during a bizarre Nazi ritual at the height of World War II. When the Allies intervene and stop the Nazis' bid for world destruction, the creature is "adopted" by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and raised in the United States. Years later, the red-skinned demon is full grown and answers to the name Hellboy (Ron Perlman). He and the professor are agents of the BPRD (a secret government taskforce that combats dark forces across the world), along with an aquatic genius named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and a reclusive firestarter named Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).
This supernatural strike-team is called to arms to combat the recently-resurrected Rasputin (Karel Roden) -- a sorcerer who was killed during the ritual that brought Hellboy to Earth decades ago. The evil madman is determined to finish the ceremony started by the Nazis and wake ancient and dangerous beings from a deep slumber. Using his enormous stone hand, carved with mysterious runes, Hellboy must combat an assassin named Kronen, stop an army of creepy beasties, and bring an end to Rasputin's bid for world domination.
Sure the story sounds campy when you write it down -- but the beauty of del Toro's 'Hellboy' is that it actually feels quite grounded in the real world. Hellboy is a working class stiff with a blue collar swagger -- as a hero, he genuinely feels fresh and different. His banter and dissatisfaction with life is endearing, making it all the more easy to sympathize and root for a giant red guy with a tail. Film fans will appreciate the witty dialogue, exciting action beats, and dark humor sprinkled throughout the story. Comic fans, meanwhile, will appreciate the faithful representation of Mignola's character, the darkness of the imagery, and the folklore weaved throughout the film.
There are some problems, but most of them can be chalked up to taste. Comic fans will certainly have an easier time navigating the strange world of 'Hellboy' -- it has its own rules and a system of reality that may make it slightly daunting to newcomers. The story is packed with subplots, side characters, and minor details that some will love and others will find tiresome and convoluted. Luckily, del Toro handles potentially laughable imagery with such realism and weight that it keeps unintentional snickers to a minimum. The performances (especially Perlman's droll delivery) are stellar and everyone is clearly invested in their character. The only weak spot is Selma Blair who seems unable to convincingly emote, but at least it matches her character's reclusive nature.
This Blu-ray edition presents the unrated Director's Cut of the film (first released on standard-def DVD in 2004), which includes more than ten minutes of scenes that were removed from the PG-13 theatrical version. This additional footage gives 'Hellboy' a bit more room to breathe, but it doesn't add anything of significance other than some amusing character interactions.
All in all, 'Hellboy' isn't the greatest comic-to-film adaptation out there, but it may well be the most unique. A fun romp through a sinister underbelly of the occult, most people will probably have a good time giving this one a shot.
Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'Hellboy' looks absolutely wonderful in this Blu-ray edition. The film's colors are extraordinarily robust, and this transfer handles reds and blues with particular confidence. More importantly, the palette doesn't look artificial -- textures are very stable and fine object detail is top notch. Black levels are deep throughout, contrast is perfect, and the imagery pops off the screen with a convincing three-dimensional appearance. The cinematography is drenched in darkness, which I thought might be problem, but shadow delineation is excellent and visibility is exactly as it should be.
I also worried that the obvious boost in picture clarity would reveal the seams in the film's award-winning makeup, but here too, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it still looked flawless. Hellboy's horns are littered with cracks and indentations that showcase the sheer artistry that went into every element of the character's design. When the theatrical cut of the film was first released on standard DVD in 2004, it looked good, but had a few issues with contrast wavering, source noise, and weak black levels. The release of the Director's Cut on DVD looked better, but still suffered from occasionally soft details. Thankfully, this Blu-ray edition is a visual revelation -- fans will be ecstatic to see that 'Hellboy' continues to receive a lot of quality attention from the studio.
All of my complaints are minor. I caught slight color banding in a few scenes, a few instances of artifacting during brief transitions, and two shots of the sewers that are a bit soft compared to the rest of the film. Finally, the move to high definition does increase the visibility of a few rough spots in the film's CG effects. Creatures occasionally appear disjointed from practical elements in the background, the CG model of Hellboy's tail appears to be lacking texture in some scenes, and baby Hellboy looks flat compared to the rest of the scene when he's first summoned to Earth. Luckily, all of these issues are infrequent and rarely distract from the overall stellar quality of the visual presentation. Hats off to Sony.
The good news continues with the audio presentation. Featuring an uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix (16-bit/48 kHz/4.6 Mbps), this Blu-ray edition of 'Hellboy' boasts room-shaking surround effects, explosive bass booms, and crystal-clear treble ranges. Dialogue seems especially crisp and Perlman's throaty delivery is always well prioritized in the soundscape. Realism is also impressive with gun shots shattering the soundfield and raindrops creating good ambient atmosphere. Room acoustics and environmental echoes receive a lot of attention in the design and each sound naturally bounds across its appropriate speaker. Channel movement is swift and subtle, accuracy is great, and the soundfield is convincing despite the fantasy elements of the movie. I didn't have any problem immersing myself in the film and I occasionally caught myself thinking sounds were coming from other rooms in my house.
The film's score is a notable element of the audio package as well -- the instrumentation is well balanced, trumpet tones are stable, and the playful tracks are full of upbeats that hop around the soundfield. My only issue was with the score's prioritization in relation to the rest of the sound design -- it occasionally dominates a scene far more than I recall in the theater or on DVD. Even if the effect is intentional, it doesn't justify the fact that quieter sounds during chaotic scenes are lost in the shuffle beneath the rousing score.
This Blu-ray release also includes three standard Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (in English, German, and French -- all with a bitrate of 448 kbps) as well as an uncompressed German language PCM track (16-bit/48 kHz/4.6 Mbps). The only reason I mention these non-english tracks is that there are several notable special features missing from this Blu-ray disc that appeared on the 3-disc DVD release of the Director's Cut, and I can't help but wonder if the inclusion of these tracks stole precious bits away from this disc's supplemental package.
'Hellboy' has been released twice on standard-def DVD -- as a theatrical cut that featured some standard supplemental material and as a three-disc Director's Cut that came loaded with hours of extras. Fans will be disappointed to learn that this Blu-ray edition carries over only a portion of the standard-def extras. Gone is the video commentary from the Director's Cut DVD which featured Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, and Jeffrey Tambor. Also missing is an audio commentary with composer Marco Beltrami, Branching DVD Comics, a unique Storyboard Track, and Kronen's Lair (a cool how-to-make-a-film featurette hosted by Del Toro).
On the bright side, the excellent documentary "Hellboy: The Seeds of Creation" (144 minutes) did make it to Blu-ray. This six-part film covers every aspect of 'Hellboy' that you could imagine -- from the early conceptual meetings between Del Toro and Mignola, to work on the costumes and makeup, to candid behind-the-scenes production footage. It certainly stands as one of the most complete and robust documentaries on a comic film. The most engaging moments include exuberant interviews with Del Toro, glances at the creation of the practical effects, and the actors development of the characters. My personal favorite elements were those that examined the adaptation of the comic story and its characters -- Mignola basically gave Del Toro carte blanche with his occultic universe and the director delivered a faithful representation that excited the creator himself.
The other significant feature on this release is a Director's Commentary with Guillermo Del Toro. While he's interesting to listen to for a bit, I personally had difficulty listening to his accent over time. I think if I could have watched him speaking (in a picture in picture window) it would've been fine - but I found myself straining to understand his comments at times. He tends repeat a lot of information found in the documentary, but he seems to acknowledge these moments by adding in additional information and anecdotes. He also discusses the additional scenes included in this Director's Cut and speaks very highly of everyone involved without sounding pompous or egotistical.
"Scott McCloud's Guide to Understanding Comics" (12 minutes) is a short featurette that's a bit dry, even for hardcore comic geeks like myself. It's a little too academic and doesn't focus on 'Hellboy' or its contribution to the medium. Instead, McCloud discusses the history of comicbook publications and how they became so popular.
Rounding out the set are a series of throwaway deleted scenes, a brief assortment of "Visual Effects How-To's" that show off three CG shots in the film, and a featurette called "Make-up and Lighting Tests" that features another jittery Del Toro commentary.
Note that all of the video supplements on this release are presented in 480i/p, and look predictably less impressive than the feature film.
'Hellboy' may not be the greatest comicbook film of all time, but comic geeks, fantasy fanatics, and creature-feature junkies are sure to have a good time with this one. Featuring a top tier transfer, a great audio package, and a decent (if incomplete) set of supplements, this Blu-ray edition of the film is sure to wow your friends and give you plenty dig through over a long weekend.