Something kind of sad happened in March when the new Hellboy movie tried to raise a ruckus and blast its way into cinemas, yet barely managed to limp its way out the door. The movie cost about $50 million to make, which isn't terrible by modern budget standards in movies, but it only made $40 million worldwide. The movie's failure in the box office pretty much pounded in the last long, wicked iron nail that was needed to entomb the cinematic Hellboy franchise forever.
I think it's safe to say that there won't be another Hellboy movie, at least not for a good long time. I'm here to make the argument that it shouldn't have been made in the first place. As much as it pains me to say this, I don't think Hellboy should have ever been live action to begin with- and I'm a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro's take on the character.
Bear with me, though. I'm going to take you for a little ride.
Halfway through watching Netflix' Umbrella Academy series, something started to nag at me. I was enjoying the show, and really getting into the characterizations. The different members of the Academy had been brought to life so perfectly, and in some ways were even better fleshed out than they had been in the comics. But something was missing.
So, I pulled out my old, battered graphic novels, and there it was. I very quickly found what was absent from the show, something that was every bit a part of the DNA that made the property so great to begin with. Gerard Way's words in many ways managed to make it to screen, but Gabriel Bá, whose quirky, eccentric art had breathed life into those characters, was almost completely missing. Sure, there were a few animated moments, but where was that bold, fearless weirdness that made the adventures of the Hargreeves children so damned strange and fun to begin with?
The simple answer, of course, is that designing a live action show that looked like a Gabriel Bá piece would be next to impossible and incredibly expensive. So, the question has to be asked- why does the Umbrella Academy have to be a live action show at all? Why didn't the team at Netflix employ animation for the series? And not just any animation either- it would have to be modeled on Bá's work- fearless, quirky, and bold.
The answer, of course, is cost, but I'll get back to that in a minute.
There were a couple of fun animated Hellboy movies that were released about ten years ago, produced by the incomparable del Toro and featuring the cast of the motion pictures, voicing their characters for animation. The story was pure Hellboy, with demons, vampires, and all sorts of monsters. The voice cast was great, but the animation was pretty standard fare. There was nothing about these films that screamed Hellboy to me.
The reason? The visual DNA was missing in action. If you're going to adapt the visionary work of writer and illustrator Mike Mignola, why limit yourself to just the writing aspect of the work? Why not adapt that incredibly rich and blocky visual style of the Hellboy comics directly? It would certainly be a challenge, but the payoff would be a film that sounded, looked, and felt like its inspiration.
It's even been done before, with Mignola's art style, no less. The Amazing Screw-On Head is pure oddball fun, and completely incorporates Mignola's look. It's a blast to watch, and testament to the fact that the art style that drew people to Hellboy in the first place could be adapted to animation.
That's not the only case of someone trying to bring the look of a comic to an adaptation, either! Director David Fincher tried to bring Eric Powell's phenomenal The Goon to life through animation, with an art style that honors Powell's beautifully. Blur Studio put together a stunning demo, but studio types appeared to have been baffled by the project. Maybe it was the subject- it might be hard to sell the story of a hulking brute and his knife-happy buddy as they smash zombies and fight monsters. Sure, I'm already in line, but the average movie goer was probably going to keep walking.
Sadly, I don't think The Goon was doomed because of how it looks or feels. It was simply too soon. Or maybe the "r" word turned people off. General audiences were still shy on the virtues of animation as a vehicle for non-kiddie fare, but times change. More and more people are starting to groove on the medium.
I know animation is expensive, but let's look at Sony's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The movie was absolutely riveting, with a visual flair all its own. The film cost about $90 million to make, nearly twice what the new Hellboy did. But there's no denying that the movie captured Spider-Man in a way the live action movies would have a hard time pulling off.
If that same $50 million budget from the new Hellboy movie had been used to make an animated film, I'm certain it would have performed better at the box office. Why? Well, because the Hellboy fans might have actually shown up. Most of the HB fans that I know opted to skip this adaptation, either from feeling burned at it not being the long-promised third act of del Toro's saga, or because of the tone deaf marketing campaign (note, do not use kitchy pop songs to sell Hellboy as a concept).
I stayed home because it may have dressed up like Hellboy, but it didn't feel like Hellboy. I'll check it out when it hits VOD, but the damage is already largely done.
So, would a theatrically released animated Hellboy movie perform? I don't think it would have done worse than the $40 million haul of the latest film, but why even release it in theaters? For the answer to that, we need look no further than del Toro, yet again.
Several years ago, Dreamworks Animation optioned del Toro's Trollhunters books as a feature film. Del Toro's team worked on the film for several years before the decision was made to make the story into a three season, 52 episode series. The show features some truly amazing animation, and is still considered one of the most succesfull shows that Netflix has produced for children.
Now we have The Dragon Prince, from the same team that realized Avatar: The Last Airbender. The story is set in an epic fantasy world, with great characters and wonderful animation. Once again, though, it's a kid's show. How would this work with something like Hellboy?
In the earlier part of 2019, Netflix released Love, Death, + Robots, an 18 episode animated anthology series with very adult themes. Each episode had its own animation style, and the series was breathtaking to watch, even if some of the stories relied too much on sexualized violence. The show is proof positive that adult animation could work, and bring in an audience, too, and also shows more of the great work that Blur Studio can put together for adult animation. (Mature content warning)
So, here we are- with a second season of The Umbrella Academy on the way, and probably a few weeks out from the VOD release of the new Hellboy movie. I'll watch them both, but my final piece of evidence in my argument is some ways off still. While it's not aimed at adults per se, there is an animated movie coming out that perfectly proves my point.
This October, MGM will be releasing an animated Addams Family movie. For those of us who grew up on the classic black and white series- or even the live action movies, this might seem an odd move. To me, though, it feels like an idea that's time has come.
Charles Addams wrote and illustrated the original Addams Family comic strips that ran in The New Yorker magazine for decades. The look and feel of this new animated movie is pure Addams, since the characters appear to be largely based off of his original comics. It has the sound of the series, with Oscar Issac's perfect blend of John Astin and Raul Julia's take on Gomez, and yet the characters look like they leaped right off of an original Addams comic.
Of course, time will be the test of whether this animated Addams Family movie will resonate with audiences. It's still a half year away, and a fun trailer does not a great movie make.
Still, if it works, I hope some producers take note, and the next time the chance to adapt a great, visually unique comic franchise like Hellboy comes up, I hope they go with some seriously kick-ass adult animation.