Synopsis: Baby demon is saved from Nazi clutches and is raised to fight paranormal forces on the side of good. Also, Ron Perlman is red, has a huge fist, and has a lot of cats. Sold.
We are dubbing this week Guillermo Del Toro Gush Fest in honor of Del Toro and his latest work, The Shape of Water, so let’s get started with one of his classics: Hellboy. Generally speaking, 2004 was an interesting year for comic book based movies. We were just getting comfortable treading the comic book territory, still trying to figure it out and sometimes hitting the mark (X-Men, Spiderman) or missing it entirely (Daredevil, Fantastic Four). For the most part, early 2000 comic book movies were meh and then Batman Begins came out and studios were all, “Alright, challenge accepted, NOLAN.”
Somewhere lost in the shuffle of Catwoman and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (yeah, I blocked those out too), we got Hellboy. Today, it gets pushed to the back burner pretty often. I’m not entirely sure why because it’s pretty damn good and one of the better early experimental comic adaptations. It got a sequel (even better than the first, in my opinion), but it never got the kind of love and attention stuff like Ironman or X-Men received. Hellboy gets me in the way it makes me feel as an audience- it’s pure escapism, highly ambitious, fun to watch for both practical/technical and entertainment perspectives, and whole lot of fun.
The characters of Hellboy are the heart of the movie. Like the X-Men, they’re kooky and generally unacceptable by society’s “normal” standards due to physical attributes and otherworldly abilities. What makes them so enjoyable is the relatable way they feel about the outside world and how they voice their sense of belonging. Liz (a delightfully mopey Selma Blair) and Hellboy (Perlman) are vocal and honest about their flaws and feelings as outsiders- putting into words what everyone has felt at one point or another. Who hasn’t felt self-conscious about their invisible attributes? Or hyper-aware of a physical flaw? To help put those thoughts into words is John Hurt as father figure Bruttenholm, who plays a huge part of Hellboy’s conscience. He’s a nice amount of genuine kindness without getting too preachy. Perlman is phenomenal here with the exact amount of broody and self-deprecating needed to make Red loveable. Despite layers and layers of make-up, we get the sense of the personality and huge heart beating underneath.
There are few low points of the movie but I would say Kroenen, the silent henchman, outshone Rasputin and Ilsa as the main villains. I don’t think they were as interesting as they could have been due to the attention and establishment Hellboy and company needed. New government agent John Meyers is also largely uninteresting but he’s a normal guy who is everything Hellboy is not- he’s there to help the audience deep dive into this underworld. As the first outing, I get he’s there for narrative purposes and exposition tools but his story doesn’t really belong in the long run, especially his side plot concerning Liz.
At the time of release, the breakout star was Doug Jones who plays Abe Sapien (with an impeccable voiceover from David Hyde Pierce) and went on to play the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four, the Faun (and other creatures) in Pan’s Labyrinth, currently in the show Star Trek: Discovery. (He’s always in make-up and I’m still not sure what his face looks like.) Some wonderful teamwork going on in this character- Pierce provides some gorgeous pacing, inflection, and diction for Abe’s lines, while Jones adds a head twitch and extra blinks here and there. Not to mention- he’s one of the most aesthetically stunning characters in cinema. Those GILLS, man.
Visually, Hellboy knocks it out of the park and still looks great 13 years later. Del Toro is known for his highly detailed practical effects, lengthy creative processes, and imaginative risks in visu- ok, we’re going to take a quick trip on the Del Toro Bandwagon. ALL ABOOOOOARD! I drool just thinking about some of the things Del Toro has put on screen and his attention to detail. There’s never a scene or shot that isn’t interesting to look at and he does an incredible job in blending realism with fantasy. He’s like the Julie Taymor of fantasy cinema, except less shock factor and more “Aw, that’s pretty and weird, but mostly pretty.” There’s a wonderful tenderness and affection for his subject matter (often outcasts) that’s felt throughout each work. Must… direct… Bioshock… Series…
Ok. Back to Hellboy. Due to the fantasy setting, we get some really great, inventive action sequences, enhanced by the use of practical effects. (If you couldn’t tell, I’m a firm believer in practical effects or “as real as you can make it.” Blame LOTR.) And they’re not just fun to watch, but also to dissect the practical effects from the CGI- it’s amazing how much they were able to blend together. Hellboy has aged pretty well for a movie that has so many fantastical demands because- I think- they didn’t overdo the CGI, allowing it to age more like Jurassic Park and less like the Quidditch scenes in Harry Potter. It has a very nostalgia, B-action movie feel to it, but is so well crafted that it’s better that what we consider “B.” The best action scene doesn’t involve any CGI at all- just two guys in costume (Kroenen and Hellboy) knocking the crap out of each other with their respective powers while Jeffrey Tambor cries in the corner. It’s great.
Overall, Hellboy aims really high with the spectacle factors and hits most of the marks, rarely slowing down or feeling too long. Is it campy? Sure. You can’t have a movie about a big red demon without it being a little cheesy, but it all adds to the atmosphere of the setting: it feels like a fantasy. Hellboy doesn’t ever stop from being entertaining and an adventure with a lot of giggles along the way.