If there’s one genre of live-action film that seems particularly prone to spawning spin-offs, it’s superhero movies. Both Marvel and DC Comics properties are known to get several direct-to-video animated features to coincide with or slightly trail their live-action releases, so it should come as no surprise that the same also applies with a property from Dark Horse Comics. Between the releases of the two live-action Hellboy films, Anchor Bay Entertainment put out two direct-to-video animated movies featuring the character. The first of these, Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms, came out in 2006, and was directed by Phil Weinstein and Tad Stones, both of whom had some experience with directing straight-to-video animations before.
Being direct-to-video doesn’t mean this film was simply a cheap cash-in, however. Fans of the live-action films are likely to appreciate it on several levels, starting with the fact that the principle actors from Hellboy return to voice their characters in the animation — in fact, this is the first time that Doug Jones actually got to voice Abe Sapien himself. Selma Blair returns as the pyrokinetic Liz, and Ron Perlman of course is back as Hellboy. They are joined by a pair of characters who are new to the film franchise: Peri Gilpin as Professor Kate Corrigan, one of the B.P.R.D.’s paranormal investigators, and Mitchell Whitfield as Russell Thorne, a bumbling psychic.
Somehow psychics never see physical assaults coming. You’d think they’d try to practice that.
The Sword of Storms in the title is an ancient Japanese katana which holds powerful spirits of lightning and thunder imprisoned within it. Hellboy is summoned to assist Kate and Russell when a demon-possessed professor attempts to steal it, and Hellboy quickly finds himself drawn into the mystery behind the legend of the sword. This is a story steeped in the symbolism of Japanese folklore, but it’s presented in an easily-digestible manner for Westerners who are unfamiliar with the lore. The story will seem somewhat exotic, but will not be confusing, and the mythology provides multiple interesting monsters for Hellboy to fight. Meanwhile, Liz and Abe are given their own assignment dealing with the external effects of the sword’s disappearance.
The story isn’t complicated, but it’s interesting from beginning to end. It has the feel of a television episode; were it not a little more than an hour, it would be easy to believe that it were simply one show out of an ongoing Hellboy series. This actually serves the film well; it has a brief introduction to the characters in the beginning, but for the most part it assumes that either the viewer is already familiar with the principle cast, or that they will be able to figure them out quickly. This respect for the viewer’s intelligence allows the film to simply get on the with the interesting parts of the story.
Such as Hellboy punching things and getting punched by things.
The movie has a lot of the same sensibilities as the preceding live-action film. It’s heavy on the action and excitement, has a touch of character development, and a touch of humor. Most of the latter comes from the wisecracks the characters exchange, though there’s also some from the bumbling of psychic Russell. Fortunately, the film avoids the mistake of having him be completely useless, and indeed careful observation of the precise things he says will be rewarding for viewers. There is, however, one problem with the script, in that there are occasional plot holes — including one big one with characters being in a bad situation in one scene and then being fine when it cuts back to them, without any attempt at explanation. This was a minor issue overall though, and compared to the story overall, it was easy to forgive.
The animation quality is quite good, with character movements and facial expressions seeming natural. Characters have clearly defined features, and the monsters are shown in great and fascinating detail. The artwork, which has an appropriately Japanese influence — particularly on the backgrounds — is visually appealing. “Special effects” such as magic and fire, which in some films can fade into the background when they’re all part of the same animated medium, remain special in appearance, standing out from the “normal” look of the film while still looking like part of the same world. It’s a subtle line to walk, and theoretically all animated films should manage it, but so many don’t that it warrants praise.
I know he’s generally fireproof, but can green flame hurt him?
Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms is a film that is essentially for the fans. It’s unlikely that anybody who didn’t like the live-action Hellboy is going to be fan of this, and there will certainly be viewers who are only interested in the live-action one. But for anybody who wants to watch another adventure with the same characters, voiced by the same actors, it’s a fun film that they are sure to enjoy.