Hellboy: Of beasts and beauties
Comic book characters have forever thrilled the young as well as the old. But, when the characters transcend the world of print, the effect can be stirring.
When Columbia Pictures released Hellboy — based on a comic book series by Mike Mignola about a sensitive crime-fighting devil — in North America over the last weekend, an estimated .5 million worth of tickets were sold. This was a record of sorts. A part of the reason for the phenomenal sales was the spring vacation in that area of the globe. Schools and colleges are closed there. The live-action movie stars Ron Perlman in the title role, puffing at a beet-red cigar, battling evil guys and pining for a troubled girl. Like the comic series, the film, directed by Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, has this dark, musty and frighteningly Gothic mood about it. Hellboy has an air of melancholy, a trace of bitter-sweetness. Do these make the movie so lovable?
One is not sure, but del Toro pursued this venture with perseverance. He had refused to helm the third Harry Potter film, because he was bent on turning Mignola's huge, monstrous-looking champion from mere lines and dots into a meaty celluloid form. Add to this an emotional angle, and Hellboy appears like some angel transformed into a roguish form by an evil magician. Forget the figure, it is the heart that matters, so says Hellboy, or apparently.
The story is as complicated as the form. It is the Second World War, and Hitler sends a special squad, headed by a mad monk, to break inter-dimensional barriers and get hold of a creature that will give a devilish edge to the Nazis. Del Toro spices his work with a slimy, ferocious feel — peppering it with desiccated flesh and traumatised organs — that can cause revulsion in some. But for a great many, these seem to be the kind of images that lure them into the theatres.
Obviously, there is a marked change in visual taste. A Japanese work called Face with an ugly heroine made it to the top of the charts in 2001.
The Lord of the Rings series has not quite given us beautiful faces or figures, but they have been ringing the box-office bell loud and clear.
And, this year, the latest in the series sprinted away with 13 Oscars.
So, the moral of the story, beasts are winning and beauties are weeping. Hellboy — which will be seen in India soon — has a bright chance of adding a new coin to our box-office history.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 7 2004)