If the film ain’t so hot, does it matter if the studio loads those platters with tasty morsels? That’s the dilemma I found myself in with “Hellboy”: Quite frankly, even though I’ve always enjoyed the comic books and even interviewed Mike Mignola for a magazine article several years ago, I found the film underwhelming. Sure, Ron Perlman was a great choice to play the lead role of a character who literally sprang from Hell during a Nazi occult experiment and who now works for the covert Bureau of Paranormal Investigations, and, yes, those effects are fabulous, and, boy, after watching that in-depth documentary and listening to the commentaries, I feel the pain of those who had to film that scene in the rain when it was freezing cold on location.
The problem with the film, though, is the same one I’ve always had with Star Trek: The Next Generation, except, instead of techno mumble-jumble that gets our heroes out of danger, it’s mystical mumble-jumble that saves the day. “Hellboy” is saddled with a convoluted plot that draws on everything from the Lovecraft mythos to Ray Harryhausen in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that weighs heavily on the proceedings. And that’s a shame, because the film has some great monster fights and a nice love story between Hellboy and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a fellow paranormal investigator now confined to a mental institution after a breakdown. Leave in that relationship, strip the plot down to its basic monster movie roots, and make the Nazis’ occult shenanigans easier to follow (gotta have the Nazis because they’re essential to the comic book too)—that’s Hellboy.
Admittedly, those who want their comic book adaptations to be right in line with the source material will be disappointed with this film, which is, as Mignola says several times during the commentary, Hellboy as interpreted by Guillermo del Toro. And I don’t really have a problem with that. I didn’t bother to sign the “No organic webshooters” petitions that went around the ‘Net before the first Spider-Man film came out, and I don’t really mind if this film represents Hellboy as seen from a slightly different perspective, as opposed to a note-for-note remake of one of the comic book storylines. So that’s not the problem. The problem is that, with movie effects and video game graphics coming closer and closer together, I sometimes feel like the film business borrows too much from the video game business when it comes to constructing plots. “First he has to get the key that opens the thingamujig and then take the Crystal of Excellent Radiance out and take that to the Key Keeper, who will put it in the eye of the Super Cool Statue so that it…” I want my plots character-driven, not video game-driven.
With that out of the way, here’s why you should pick up this incredible two-disc set, assuming you spit at your computer display while reading my comments on the film: It’s the most jam-packed Special Edition of a recent studio release that I’ve seen since Pirates of the Caribbean. Keep in mind, however, that del Toro says he wants to put out a Director’s Cut at some point, so you may need to double-dip on this film if the extras found here aren’t replicated on the new one. I’d imagine that, at the very least, the commentaries won’t be repurposed.
Starting with disc one, we have an excellent transfer and well-done soundtrack, as if you expect anything less from DVD these days, especially a big-budget studio film. Commentary number one, which features Mignola and del Toro, is a nice chatty track that show how much these guys genuinely like each other and how tuned in they are to each other’s sensibilities. Del Toro points out several places where he will add in footage for the Director’s Cut, some of which sounds like it will help illuminate the plot a bit and some of which sounds like it will introduce pointless tangents, such as extra scenes involving Rasputin’s eyes. They relate plenty of production stories from the set, which Mignola hung around on, and give us the usual “Oh, here’s a CGI bit. You’d think that other thing is CGI, but it’s not.” stuff we’ve heard a billion times before on the commentaries for movies like this one. They also point out where they’ve thrown in homages to their favorite genre movies; interestingly, Mignola mentions that they tried to bring in Harryhausen to consult on the film, but he thought it was too violent.
Commentary number two is a cast track with Perlman, Blair, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Evans. They were obviously all in the same room as they watched the film and play off each other well, although Blair seems prone to lots of “Oh, I didn’t get to see that when they filmed it” kind of comments. They goof around a bit and sometimes just idly talk about how cool a certain scene is, although Perlman has some nice moments where he digs a bit deeper into the material, pointing out a spot where del Toro brought in a reference to Joseph Campbell, for example.
Now, most films would call it quits with disc one at this point, but Columbia TriStar Home Video must love the fanboys these days because they kept going. One option allows you to check out a series of eight “DVD comics” written by del Toro and illustrated by Mignola just for this release. You can either watch them when a Silver Age-esque Hellboy comic book cover pops up on the screen during the film or just select them from the menu, which seems easier to me. They’re fun pieces that run the gamut from the silliness of “Pancakes” to the creepiness of “Hellboy Scrapbook.” Disc one also offers “Right Hand of Doom Set Visits” that you can access the same way; they’re basic fly-on-the-wall on-set footage that’s fun if you enjoy that sort of thing (I find it tedious after a while, whether I liked the film or not).
But, wait, that’s not all. Disc one also includes a track that synchronizes the storyboards to the film, so that you can see the comparisons between the two, as well as “From the Den—Hellboy Recommends,” which offers up in their entirety four old cartoons that you can catch Hellboy watching during the movie: three Gerald McBoing Boing shorts, which were created by Dr. Seuss during the 1960s, and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” an ancient cartoon that adapts the Edgar Allen Poe short story. Finally, pop this disc in a DVD-ROM drive (except on a Mac; I hate that) and get a printable copy of the original screenplay, the script supervisor’s book and the director’s notebook.
Still with me? Now we’ll head over to disc two, which features “Hellboy: The Seeds of Creation” as its main centerpiece. Clocking in at two hours, 20 minutes, this in-depth documentary covers the film from its inception to the premiere. I wish they’d touched on its pre-del Toro origins, when Peter Briggs was working on the script (I know he had one draft that featured Hellboy duking it out with monsters while riding on top of a UFO at the end, which sounds more in line with the film I wanted to see), and sometimes the sound and picture quality leave a bit to be desired, but overall it’s the type of documentary that I enjoy watching when I love a movie. Except I didn’t love this one. But if you did, you’ll eat up every second of this footage.
Continuing on disc two, we have three deleted scenes, complete with optional director’s commentary, that offer some glimpses into what may be added to del Toro’s Director’s Cut of the film. You can also check out filmographies and character bios, a gallery of videos that show off the maquettes created for the film, animatics for four scenes, a few in-depth storyboard-to-film comparisons, and “board-a-matics,” which comprise the storyboards stitched together into short films meant to give a sense of what the finished movie will look like (Pixar does this for many of their releases). In addition, you can check out a pair of theatrical trailers, nine TV spots, pictures of proposed film posters as well as the final versions, and previews for “Seinfeld,” “Spider-Man 2, “Spider-Man: The New Animated Series,” “13 Going on 30,” and “White Chicks.” (Disc one also has a forced trailer that starts when you place it in your player; you can skip past it but, man, I hate those things.)
Ever start to feel like the DVD age is one of steadily increasing information overload? Try reviewing even the few releases I check out and you might start contemplating the Luddite life. I love a nice selection of DVD extras, but, like I said at the beginning, when I’m not thrilled with a film they can become tedious. (Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to that Matrix 10-disc set recently announced; I’ll stick with my DVD of the first film and “Matrix Revisited,” thanks.) So, just like I often pop half a star off a DVD when I think the extras are shoddy, or the picture quality is crap, I have to add half a star here simply because the producer thought the way del Toro did when he made the film: “Let’s throw everything we can think of at them and hope most of it sticks.” Works for DVD extras, but not when you’re constructing a narrative.