Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms Review

Guillermo Del Toro’s big screen live-action adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic book creation Hellboy was for myself perhaps a little too conventional in its styling, pacing and characterisation as a superhero movie, but it was at least gratifying to see that the character has potential to cross over into a new medium and reach a new audience. Its success also held out the promise of further development for the franchise, and while we’ve yet to see a live-action sequel go into production and sadly have seen only one new 2-issue mini-series from creator Mignola in the meantime, we at least now have the character re-styled for animation with the first animated Hellboy movie Sword of Storms.

Actually, forget the live-action sequel. Rather than seeing Hellboy dumbed down further for mainstream audiences by Guillermo del Toro, I’d much rather see its potential developed in the animation medium, which, on the basis of the first movie, Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms is closer to the characters intended pulp roots, more faithful to characterisation, styling and pacing and its fun theme of bashing around a few mythological monsters. This responsibility for keeping the world free from supernatural and occult demons falls to the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence), and its agents, many of whom possess the supernatural talents necessary to combat such threats. Chief among the agents of the field is Hellboy, a demon summoned from hell – as seen in the live-action movie – by Nazi occultists, hoping to turn the tide of World War II.

With barely time to clean-up after dealing with a particular nasty outbreak of mummy activity in a Mayan temple alongside fellow agents, the amphibian Abe Sapien and human-flame Liz Sherman, Hellboy’s abilities are called on again to deal with an outbreak of supernatural activity in Japan. Professor Sakai has discovered an ancient scroll that reveals the legend of a samurai sword that holds captive the spirits of thunder and lightning. Sakai attempts to regain the sword, but unleashes powerful spirits within it. BPRD are immediately on the case, Hellboy travelling to Japan with Kate Corrigan and a medium, but on picking up the sword Hellboy finds himself transported into another dimension of mythological creatures. The only way for Hellboy to return home is to break the sword, but by doing so he will unleash the Brothers of the Dragon, and with the demons of the sword already causing worldwide meteorological disturbances, you really don’t want that to happen...

Finding an animation style of its own, not imitating Mike Mignola’s jagged bold relief drawings, the first Hellboy Animated feature Sword of Storms nonetheless remains truer to the creator’s vision than Guillermo Del Toro’s movie version, with none of the patronising talking down to the viewer of that film’s stock characterisations and stereotypical Hollywood combination of action sequences, comedy and romance. Sword of Storms goes straight to the action, with no unnecessary background information or recaps. Very quickly, any viewer can recognise that we have a Ghostbusters situation here, only in this case those battling the demons are others of their kind. And there are plenty of big, nasty demons to beat the crap out of – sea leviathans, mummies, and the whole panoply of creatures from Japanese ghost stories and ancient folklore – floating heads, shape-shifting foxes and kappa among them. There are shades of Kwaidan here, not to mention Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo comic book (do I detect a homage in the naming of the professor who discovers the scroll?).

This delving into ancient mythologies for creatures for Hellboy and his team to beat up is very much true to the spirit of the original comic books, but more than that, Sword of Storms demonstrates a much better understanding of what makes the characters work, and a lot of it is through Hellboy’s dry sarcasm and his short temper. You get the impression that he only really starts to take the challenge of the demons seriously because they start to get on his nerves, hence you’ll find him saying things like “Oh, crap” or, “I don’t have time for this” whenever a new, more dangerous apparition threatens him. Voiced by Ron Perlman (from the live action movie – Selma Blair also returns for voicing here), this captures the tone of the character perfectly.

The animation itself is also hard to fault. Without copying Mignola and without going too far away from the original stylisations either, Sword of Storms has a strong modern Cartoon Network design, which is cartoony in the style of the Batman Animated series – closer to Mike Avon Oeming (Powers) than Mike Mignola - but with a character of its own, and the animation flows beautifully. There’s not enough of those dark trademark Mignola blacks in the colour schemes for my taste, but this would appear to be a conscious decision of the art team to forge a style of their own. The pacing is also spot-on, the story building up to a climax as the creatures get bigger, nastier and more world threatening. Liz and Abe are a little bit sidelined from the main action, and in the rather safer cartoon world, there’s never any sense that the Brothers of the Dragon pose much of a challenge to the BPRD, but in all other respects, Sword of Storms is a very successful first outing for the Hellboy Animated series.

Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms is released in the UK by Anchor Bay. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Filmed in widescreen and presented in anamorphic 16:9, the image quality is close to perfect. The action flows smoothly, with scarcely any sign of blurring, interlacing, ghosting or colour banding so common on animation titles. Closer frame-by-frame inspection will reveal instances of all of the above, as well as some edge-enhancement (incomprehensible on a work of animation), but little of this is evident during normal playback. Colours are strong, bright and accurate, but tending towards pastel shades with scarcely a pure black in sight. This however seems to be a stylistic choice of the animators.

Two audio choices present the film in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. The surround mix is clear and relatively strong, with deep rumbling bass in the action sequences and frequent peals of thunder. It’s not overly showy, but works well enough with the animation.

There are no hard of hearing subtitles provided.

Commentary by Mike Mignola, Tad Stones and Phil Weinstein
The commentary is fairly loose, talking about the challenges of animating each sequence in the film, getting the tone right and keeping sponsors at the Cartoon Network happy. I didn’t find the commentary particularly riveting – the information about the creative process is much better expanded upon in the more accessible interviews and featurettes on the DVD.

Keepers of Hellboy (42:32)
Unveiled at the San Diego Comic Con 2006, showing the work in progress as part-animatics and part-finished animation, a conference with all the main players, including Mignola and Del Toro, moderated well by Tad Stones, goes into depth on the style and look of the animated feature. With heavy emphasis on Sean Galloway’s character designs, this tells you everything you need to know about the transition of the Hellboy character into animation. And, as with the live-action feature, you get some sense of a spirit of fun and collaboration on the project that is evident in the finished product.

The remainder of the extra featurettes cover various aspects of the making of the animated film. To Hell And Back (9:47) looks at how Mike Mignola created Hellboy, talking to the artist and people who have worked with him. A New Breed (5:19) focuses on reworking the material for animation, with contributions from Sean “Cheeks” Galloway, the character concept designer. View From The Top (5:24) examines the integration of Mignola’s wonderful Heads comic short into the film – from folklore to comic to animation. In Conquering Hellboy: The Actors Role (6:26), the actors briefly talk about the challenges of voice acting and we are introduced to the new voices, which include Doug Jones, the actual guy in the Abe Sapien suit in the film, Phil La Marr and Peri Gilpin (Ros in Frasier). The Hellboy Goes East mini-featurettes also look at various aspects of the creation of the animated movie Tail Spin (2:52) at the spiderlady sequence; Prop Prefecture (2:35) on the research for props, artefacts and set designs; Origins (2:28) on Japanese folklore and the samurai details; Samurai Songs (2:55) focussing on Christopher Drake’s music. I couldn’t find any DVD-ROM content on the disc.

The first Hellboy Animated movie is an absolute delight. This is much better than Guillermo Del Toro’s live-action movie outing, losing all the cheesy movie clichés and stock character conventions and going straight for the demon-bashing action of the comic book series. A few changes have been made to the original concept, but the essential elements and mythologies that give Hellboy its character and originality are all there. With the talent involved, I suspect that this animation is only going to get better as it progresses. There can be no serious complaint about the packaging of Sword of Storms on DVD either, with a strong audio-visual presentation and extra features that fully support and enhance the main feature.

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