The latest incarnation of the Mike Mignola's once underground, now seemingly omnipresent and unstoppable, comic book masterpiece, 'Hellboy', now comes into the world of animation. The first of the several planned animated films, 'The Sword of Storms' takes Hellboy and drops him in a fantasy world of Japanese folklore.
The voice acting is excellent. Ron Perlman has now become the de facto voice of Hellboy, and if this ever becomes an animated series, his presence will be crucial for its success. More surprisingly, considering her usually rather flat and whiny voice, Selma Blair delivers a finely nuanced performance. The best of all however, is Doug Jones. Seemingly perennially cursed by his background as a mime, the man has been seen in several great films in recent years but never heard. He has a pleasant, deep-ish voice, which entirely suits Abe Sapien. David Hyde Pierce acquitted himself well in Hellboy but will not be missed in the sequel. Hopefully Mr Jones' fine performance here will encourage studio execs to leave him be as the voice of the Silver Surfer.
The character designs are deliberately different from Mignola's and in my opinion, that is a smart decision. Hellboy himself remains relatively faithful to the original concept, but shown in a more stylised form, reminiscent of Bruce Timm's drawings. For the most part, this works, apart from an occasional slip where Hellboy's face takes on an exaggerated facial expression, lapsing into caricature. Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and a few of the supporting characters are more radically redesigned and remind of the current pseudo-manga style of 'The Batman' or 'Jackie Chan Adventures'. Personally, I am not a great fan of this particular approach, but I acknowledge it is popular and in context, effective. Mike Mignola's original drawing style is not completely ignored and is most clearly evoked in the design of Hellboy's various skeletal and monstrous opponents. There are also some attempts to emulate the comic's use of shadows (most notably in the "Heads" sequence).
There are however, some problems. The animation itself is very hit and miss, and apart from the already mentioned weird facial expressions, there are occasional strange and unnatural movements from the characters. Some scenes feature noticeably poorer animation quality than the overall film. They appear jerky and cheap and look as though they were completed in a rush.
The plot itself is not overly engaging. Although a story about cursed ancient lovers shows promise, it is severely underdeveloped, in favour of some nonsense about Thunder Gods and Dragons. The majority of the actual film shows Hellboy wandering around Wonderland (or something), fighting assorted monsters. Some of these action sequences are great fun but it all gets repetitive so that the overall effect is episodic and only occasionally compelling (I'm going to mention "Heads" again here that segment is excellent). The other half of the film deals with Abe and Liz, but they are not given much to do, and their action sequences are nowhere near as interesting as Hellboy's. There is some attempt to deal with Liz's distrust of her powers but it largely falls flat, especially compared to the comics and film. However, the fact that there is some characterisation at all, as well as the presence of some rather mature themes and some unflinching violence mark this as more than just a kids-only film. Hopefully, the creators are just hitting their stride, and some of the wrinkles will be ironed out by the next instalment.