Hellboy (2004)

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Starring Ron Perlman! And directed by Guillermo del Toro. To me, those were both very good signs. I had no idea who the Hellboy character was... I just knew it was a giant guy with red skin fighting a swarm of CGI monsters. In other words, the same plot as Scooby-Doo 2.

It has been said that nobody is better than Ron Perlman at conveying natural-seeming emotional expression through layers of foam-rubber face prostheses. I think this is probably true. He really does make his character seem quite human, and thoroughly engaging and likeable, despite being very limited in what facial expressions he can make through the makeup. He actually makes most of the other roles look flat and drab. Especially Selma Blair, I’m afraid.

It has also been said that this film is “fanboy heroin”. And this too has some truth to it. Of all the comic book movies I’ve seen, this one comes closest to the feeling you get when first seeing Star Wars (the ultimate benchmark of fanboy addictivity). It has the same tone, the same kind of good-guys-win story, the same tendency to push aside story in favor of action spectacle for large chunks of time. And this tone is perfect for a comic book story, at least if you don’t want to escalate it with higher pretensions a la Hulk. Del Toro’s previous comic book film, Blade II, felt nothing like this. And though you could say that this just means del Toro is turning more commercial, this is by far the better film of the two. When del Toro was making Blade II, what he wanted to be doing was making this. It was he who did all the pushing to get this film produced.

This film adheres strictly to the rules for what a Summer Blockbuster ought to do — better, in fact, than a lot of cynically commercial special-effects blockbusters manage to.

The monsters are one of the best parts of the movie — they’re some of the most convincing yet. The most commonly seen monster, known as Sammael, is really something: it looks realer than most any CGI critter I’ve seen, and wilder than most any rubber suit monster. It turns out that they used both techniques, in different shots. I wish I could say the same for the Hellboy makeup. Foam rubber pectorals just don’t cut it. But at this rate it will probably be decades before Hollywood comes up with a way to make fake muscles that have the fluidity of real ones. Even in the area of facial add-ons, where the most progress has been made in flexibility, they still have an awfully long way to go.

The character of Hellboy is rather derivative, and nobody (least of all Perlman) seems to have thought through how someone raised by a scientist inside a giant underground techno-complex could have ended up with the cultural mannerisms of the working class, but this still adds up to one of the most enjoyable of comic book movies, largely because of the Hellboy character himself and how Perlman depicts him.

In other words... change a couple of key personnel, and this could have been a Mummy-esque stinker. As it is, the film’s worst shortcoming is the blatancy of the product placements.

There are also two animated Hellboy movies, featuring the cast of the live-action film doing the voices. The first is Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms (2006). There’s a lot to like about it; a big story with lots of plot and action, and lots of imagination and creativity with the stuff our heroes come up against. It’s just let down by one thing: absolutely terrible art. They’re imitating the squarish chunky abstract style popularized by Bruce Timm in the TV show Batman: The Animated Series, only even cruder and less lifelike. Faugh. The second film is Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron; this one is quite a bit more boring than the first.