Hellboy by Guillermo Del Toro (Review)

There’s so much that I love about this movie and yet, it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Hellboy - Guillermo del Toro

Hellboy was easily one of the films I was most excited to see in 2004, even though I’ve never read any of the comics on which it is based. But from what I saw, it had pretty much everything I could want from a movie: an intriguing premise (a demonic child comes to Earth as part of a Nazi plan to conquer the world using black magic, is rescued by the Allies, and becomes a paranormal investigator for the government), some of the coolest characters I’ve ever seen (like Abe Sapiens, a half-human, half-fish creature), exotic locales, obscure religious and mythological (and H.P. Lovecraft!) references, slam-bang action, etc. The total package, in my book.

So why didn’t I like it more?!?

I suppose part of it may be due to the fact that I’ve never read the comics, and this one definitely feels like it’s meant for fans of the books (unlike the X-Men movies, which can be enjoyable even if you can’t tell Professor X from Mr. Sinister). But I suppose my biggest qualm with the film is that, for all of its painstaking attention to detail (just check out those sets and costumes — WOW!), there’s so much more that was left unrealized.

Obscure religious and mythological references abound, always a good thing in my book, but with little explanation as to their role in the Hellboy mythos as a whole. Secret Vatican councils, Nazi cults, the Lance Of Longinus, occult wars, elder gods imprisoned in other dimensions (think Cthulhu), obscure footnotes from Russian history, bizarre magical devices — it’s all in there, but how everything ties together is barely explained at best. It’s all dangled in front of the viewer, hinting at some greater mythos, but more often than not you’re left feeling rather perplexed by it all.

Case in point — I found myself wondering just where the heck Hellboy even came from. Sure, he “crosses over from the other side,” but what is that “other side”? Is it outer space, another dimension, Hell, or some other plane of existence? From the movie, you just don’t know. I got more from reading director Guillermo del Toro’s notes on the website than I did from the film — but only because I’d done my homework.

And for all of the fascinating characters in the movie, like Abe Sapiens (my fave), they feel completely underdeveloped. From the trailers and previews I’d seen, I was really expecting this to be a very character and relationship-driven movie, at least as much as you can expect from a film full of big, nasty monsters. But just when things start to get involved — BAM! — it’s on to the next “Big Action Piece” where Hellboy and some demon proceed to beat the snot out of eachother with Hellboy making smart-aleck quips along the way.

The relationship between Hellboy and his father figure, Professor Bruttenholm, should’ve made for some great scenes — but they’re essentially estranged the entire film. Same goes for Hellboy’s relationship with Liz Sherman, a troubled pyrokinetic. She’s the great love of his life, and while there are some solid (and humorous) scenes that touch on this, there’s not enough there to allow the viewer to take it seriously. It seems like we’re just supposed to take it all for granted, and leave it at that. And finally, let’s not forget that our main character is a demon trying to resist his diabolical heritage and become a good guy. That alone should’ve made for some great drama.

There are other things about the movie that caused it to stumble as well: the poor editing (there are several occasions where it feels like scenes that explain how the movie got from Point A to Point B are missing, or where the transitions that occur between what is there only make things more confusing); the sometimes cheesy special effects (which at times add the appropriate comic book feel, and at other times, look like test runs); and the underwhelming ending which wraps everything up all nice and neat. Too nice and neat.

I tried to enjoy Hellboy as pulp entertainment. However, there’s too much substance to the movie for me to take it as such, what with all of the mythical/religious elements and the hints that the characters and their relationships might be deeper than what we see. But it’s frustrating when a movie with so much substance and potential essentially devolves into a film about big guns, big hits, and big explosions (with the requisite monster guts flying all over the screen). I can see what Hellboy was reaching for, what it was trying to be. But at the same time, I can see it fell very short.

In interviews, del Toro has already been dropping hints about the “Director’s Cut” DVD release, which will include at least 20 minutes of additional footage. I hope it’s more exposition, be it character moments, backstory, or elaborations on the mythos, and not 20 more minutes of Hellboy beating the crap out of some big-tongued demon. There’s too much of that stuff in the movie as it stands right now, and it’s poorer as a result.

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