Appellate Judge Michael Stailey's Chicago Assignment contained less monsters, more hot dogs, than this animated prequel.
In the moment before…
As is true with most films, we come into the story somewhere in the middle. Much has happened before arrived and even more will happen after we leave. The challenge for the screenwriter is determining the amount of backstory needed to effectively setup the major plot elements.
In the case of Van Helsing, writer/director Stephen Sommers begins his big screen tale with the climactic finale in our hero's mission to save the soul of the nefarious Mr. Hyde. What we don't see is how Hyde wound up in Paris and the motives behind Van Helsing's assignment.
With the success of The Animatrix, Hollywood is seeing dollar signs, investing a portion of their marketing budget in direct to DVD animated prequels that lead viewers into that mysterious and vaunted "moment before." The question is, are these valued story elements worthy of their $15 price tag, or nothing more than elaborate commercials for the feature film?
Van Helsing: The London Assignment takes us to the heart of the Vatican, where Gabriel Van Helsing (note the Archangel reference) continues his training and work as a valued Knight of the Holy Order. His latest assignment is to unravel a series of grisly murders taking place against young women on the streets of London. Where Van Helsing (voiced by Hugh Jackman) has no compunction about destroying these forces of evil, his handlers—the hierarchy of the Catholic Church—want them brought in unharmed, as all souls are worthy of salvation in the eyes of God. When the murderer turns out to be an inhuman monster (voiced by Robbie Coltrane, Cracker) with strangely ulterior motives—stealing the life force of its victims—it's up to Van Helsing and his trusty sidekick Carl (voiced by David Wenham, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, think Ian Fleming's Q meets Jimmy Olsen, with a dash of Dr. Niles Crane) to discover the method behind the monster's madness.
Written by the husband and wife team of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Batman: The Animated Series), the plot doesn't show us anything new. In fact, it's textbook, 30-minute animated episodic; introduce the villain, highlight the strengths and flaws of the hero(es), engage pursuit, throw in a plot twist or two, partake in battle, rescue the victim, and resolve.
The twist here is that our villain is Dr. Jekyll, Royal Physician for the House of Windsor, whose unrequited love for Queen Victoria drives him to master the dark arts. In past incarnations, Henry Jekyll has been portrayed as the victim to his inner dark persona of Mr. Hyde. In Van Helsing's world, Jekyll is in complete control of his transformation, both mentally and physically. Strangely enough, the character design for Hyde bears a striking resemblance to Carol Spier and Stephen Norrington's use of Hyde in Fox's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Coincidence?
As for Gabriel Van Helsing, he's an amalgam of archetypes, equal parts Batman, James Bond, Vampire Hunter D, and The Shadow—a vigilante recruited by the forces of light to battle and control the forces of darkness. Credit Hugh Jackman for infusing the character with a sense of wit and panache, otherwise Van Helsing would be truly two-dimensional. Given time and more well-crafted missions, Van Helsing could prove to be the next Indiana Jones.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen format, the transfer, as one might expect, is pristine. The colors, comic book vibrancy and immense darkness, are exceptionally suited to Van Helsing's animated world, quite different from the bleak, muted visuals of the character's first big screen adventure. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is a nice surprise and comes across quite well, leveraging the use of John Van Tongeren's dark, Conan-esque score building off of Alan Silvestri's orchestral themes. Some nice use of directional effects, notably in the destruction sequences, of which there are few.
Unfortunately, Sunwoo's animation does not fare quite as well—a mishmash of styles that cannot quite seem to work well together. The majority of the episode is traditional hand-drawn (computer enhanced) animation, a step above Saban's X-Men but never quite reaching Warner's Batman: The Animated Series. Strangely enough, there are anime influences at work, but none of them are seamless. It's almost as if certain segment animators were trying to achieve a distinctive visual combat style, one which director Sharon Bridgeman does not pick up on or follow through. To make matters worse, the CG elements are blatantly out of place and often misused; the train sequence being the most violent offender. It's just not a cohesive enough presentation.
Bonus features are unusually robust for an animated release, but here's where the Van Helsing marketing machine kicks in. First up is a 28-minute behind the scenes featurette on the Van Helsing feature film, hosted by actress Josie Maran; undoubtedly the gem of this release. Next, a seven-minute look at the creative process behind the Van Helsing video game. This is followed by a four-minute chat with Hugh Jackman on the id, ego, and super ego of Gabriel Van Helsing. Finally, a seven-minute animatic to animation comparison you can skip, if you've ever glanced at a storyboard. Oh, the disc starts with a trailer for Universal's upcoming theatrical release The Chronicles of Riddick and it's animated prequel. Can you see a trend developing here?
This court can neither condemn nor congratulate Universal on the release of Van Helsing: The London Adventure. Had the story been more engaging and the animation more polished, this could have served as the pilot for an intriguing animated series. As it turns out, this is nothing more than an elaborate promotional tool for the film. While I would advise against a purchase, I would most certainly recommend a rental. Let's hope that, if the trend continues, the studios will leverage the potential of this format.
Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Van Helsing: Behind the Screams
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