In the “it was a dark and stormy night” genre of graphic novels (that’s comic books with literary aspirations), we are guaranteed to find a Sam Spade-inspired anti-hero with a wicked sense of humor and a weakness for a dangerous dame. Frank Miller’s “Sin City” series is among the most impressive of the type. Comic book creator Mike Mignola, inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and his sci-fi pioneering colleagues, made his main character a real bruiser with the body of a Hell-spawned demon and the heart of a human.
Of course it begins on a dark and stormy night. And cut right to the chase with everyone’s favorite bad guys, the Nazis, aided by Rasputin, the infamously hard to kill “mad monk” of Russian lore. They have commandeered a Scottish island for the purpose of opening an intergalactic portal to the Gods of Chaos, who float in the ether like inky space squid waiting for a chance to come to Earth. Luckily the plucky American military, aided by young scientist Dr. Broom, closes the portal before the inter-galactic cephalopod overlords can enter. All that comes through the door is a cute little demon toddler with a weakness for Baby Ruth candy bars.
Flash forward to the present and the now grown Hellboy, complete with tail, huge stone hand and red-on-red natural body art is the supersized ward of Dr. Broom and the Bureau for Paranomal Research and Defense (BPRD). As Broom tells a new recruit, there are creatures who go bump in the night and he and his little group are the ones who bump back.
Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), is elegant, sensitive, erudite, and a fish-man. Cigar-munching, cat-loving Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has a huge stone hand and forearm that help him to pummel baddies who look like they are fresh off the set of Men In Black. He is their most famous inmate, despite the fact that the U.S. government does its best to deny that Hellboy exists. The official assigned to supervise the BPRD (Jeffrey Tambor) would prefer that they didn’t. But when Rasputin, et al, are back with some rather nasty Hounds of Hell to try to bring the octopus overlords to this dimension yet again, it’s time to call in Hellboy & Co.
Hellboy is endearingly human, with a penchant for wiseguy understatement and his love for his adopted family of misfits at the Bureau, especially doe-eyed and dangerous Liz Sherman (Selma Blair looking angsty). They seem literally made for each other as the woman who has trouble controlling her pyrotechnics wouldn’t want a boyfriend who wasn’t fireproof.
Director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Blade 2” blazed with whirling swords, back-flipping vampires and frenetic action, at times rendering the fights an incomprehensible blur. Del Toro does not make that error again, introducing a comparatively sleepy pace for Hellboy that seems to stretch its 132 minute length into a much longer movie, padded in parts by unnecessary and clichéd scenes and overkill in the squiggly monsters in dripping cavernous cellars category. To his credit, he captures some of the visual color, tone, and, yes, beauty of the comic book, but he sometimes makes you feel like you are reading it over someone else’s shoulder and that person takes too long to finish a page.
Parents should know that this movie contains frightening images, a dark and at times macabre tone and the sad death of a central character. There is a great deal of violence in the fight scenes, which are at times bloody, and characters must wrestle with the deadly consequences of their actions. A scary character is addicted to self-surgery, while one of the creatures summoned by the Nazis is a Hell-hound that will frighten younger audiences. Several characters (including one major character) die violent deaths. The inability of one of the characters to control her powers causes the off-screen death of innocents, which might frighten even the most mature of audiences.
Families who watch this movie might wish to discuss the father-son bond between Dr. Broom and Hellboy, why they fight and how this relationship impacts both of their characters. Neither Abe Sapien nor Hellboy can “pass” as humans yet they both embrace very human traits. Which traits are these and why might exposure to people outside the BPRD not be a good thing for these characters? The movie touches on an issues that runs throughout the comic book series, that of Hellboy’s commitment to defense of humans despite his demon form. What does being human mean for Hellboy? Where does he have the power of choice?
Families who enjoy this movie for its mix of humor and paranormal/extra-dimensional action will also appreciate Ghostbusters, X-Men, or Men in Black. Those who wish to see the prolific Ron Perlman without the red skin and horns, should rent the surreal but lovely City of Lost Children and the very funny Happy Texas. His voice can also be heard in numerous cartoons, including as the character “Clayface” on the 90’s excellent “Batman: the Animated Series.”
Mignola’s comic book, “The Corpse”, is a light, short vignette worth reading, from which Del Toro borrowed some of the funniest scenes in “Hellboy”. Families should be aware that the “Hellboy” graphic novels contain mature themes and an overall macabre tone that might frighten some readers.