To my surprise, that ended up being quite good. Unfortunately you'll have to set your sights pretty low if you want to be able to agree with me, since it's mildly retarded and most of its good qualities are shallow.
Ironically the stuff that's both good and interesting about this film is also the thing that nearly put me off buying it. It's set in Japan. I'd been imagining stupid American animation (which this is) doing an idiot's version of Japanese culture and making itself unwatchable. However to my surprise, their version of Japan and Japanese folklore is authentic. They know what they're talking about. The streets and temples look as they should, we see Japanese writing that's correct as far as I can see and they've hired Japanese voice actors. Admittedly the accents lie on a spectrum that goes from "katakana-English" to "bilingual", but I can live with the American English since that's what they teach in schools over there.
Then on top of that, the story's full of Japanese folklore, with things like magical foxes, ghosts, floating flames, water-dwelling kappa with bowls on their heads and so on. Hellboy gets sucked into another dimension and basically goes on a magical mystery tour of Japanese folk tales. I loved all that. Some of this stuff gets seriously weird, which is always nice. Admittedly these are basically the Oriental equivalent of Grimms' fairy tales and it's all a bit random and structureless, but it's not as if the rest of the film can claim to be tightly plotted or anything.
Besides, the animation in those scenes is drawing influences from 19th century Japanese art, which in other words means Okakura Kakuzo, so despite the "simplified-for-animation" appearance you're looking at honest-to-goodness stylistic homage here. All that I admire.
Everything else is dumb.
We begin with a pointless fight that has nothing to do with anything and makes the film look like garbage. The script wants to show our heroes kicking arse, so up pop some Aztec zombies and bad-tempered seafood. It's bloody awful. Liz Sherman shows off her pyrokinesis twice in the first minute, but then once the bad guys have shown up, she waits for ages before even lighting a spark. Admittedly there's a character-based reason for this, since she's happy with small fires but nervous of getting out of control with big ones, but the film's working on such a Saturday morning level that until the explanation comes later it feels like a goof anyway. Furthermore everything goes a little too fast, making the dialogue seem cliched and perfunctory even when it isn't.
The voice acting is also at its worst in these first five minutes, with Doug Jones being unmemorable and Selma Blair being painful. Fortunately they both improve later when they've got less stupid scenes to act in. Ron Perlman made me laugh, though. This is one of those rare animated movies that keeps the same voice cast as the live-action originals, but to be honest I wasn't that impressed. Did I ever mention that I hate Dreamworks for packing their animated films with famous movie stars doing the voices? None of the big names here are bringing even 5% of what they had in the live-action Hellboy films. Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman don't even seem interesting, with the new girl (Professor Kate Corrigan, played by Peri Gilpin) being more fun to watch instead.
Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the opening voiceover for info-dump purposes, delivered in such a macho voice that it's silly.
Things improve when we move to Japan, although it's amusing to see Professor Sakai reading aloud an entire story from a scroll that visibly holds only a single sentence. Even people who can't read Japanese might smell a rat at that one, although I'll be charitable and suggest that maybe it's an early indicator of his being possessed by demons. There are jokes! Hellboy continues to be the straight man who brings the laughs, as for instance when he sets off the Bureau's ghost detector. There's even funny dialogue. "Do I look like a philosopher?" Soon Hellboy's off on his quest-structure tour of Japanese monsters, but he's on his third supernatural encounter before meeting one who doesn't effectively defeat itself. The first lot of monsters get themselves fried by the rising sun, despite the fact that just a few minutes earlier they'd been saying it was the perfect time for action and had indeed been hanging around waiting for the right moment to go after Hellboy. That's stupid, but it looks cool. Even more retarded are the second lot of monsters, who burn themselves to death with their own fire-breathing superpowers. Hellboy doesn't even make them do it. The spider-woman just blasts fire everywhere and then dies.
This feels like a script that was knocked out in an afternoon. It has very little structure and even a five-year-old could spot these idiocies. However despite these flaws, what it does really well is to throw weird monsters at us. You'll never know what's coming next, from flesh-eating flying heads to a man who's carving names into cucumbers. The tsukumugami would have been the coolest thing I've seen in ages even if they hadn't been taken from real folklore, according to which any item or artefact that reaches the age of 100 years old can become alive and aware. This can be anything from a sword to a toy. Annoyingly though the voice actress pronounces its first syllable as "su" rather than "tsu", which is something I've never understood. English has a "tsu" sound. Admittedly we don't put it at the beginning of words, but it's not as if "tsunami" is harder to say than "cats".
It's eye candy, basically. It's a chance to see an incredible variety of monsters and freaky things, loosely strung together in a plot that's openly borrowing from the equivalent of fairy tales. The ending is of course visible from about an hour off, but I liked the way it made the demons so ridiculously big and gave the ghosts a happy ending. Did I mention the ghosts? There was once a samurai who loved a girl, you see. All that felt very Japanese to me as well, come to mention it.
This movie isn't without wit, which is nice. It really helps that the finale in particular has a couple of gags, undercutting the machismo with bathos. The animation is smooth. The film gets off on the wrong foot thanks to those first five minutes, but after that it settles down into something watchable. Nevertheless I still wouldn't recommend the thing to anyone who wasn't specifically interested in either Hellboy or Japanese culture, since fundamentally it's still a scantily plotted low-IQ runaround with bad dialogue. "The world needs what we can do. That makes us good guys. That's enough for me." I was expecting them to do something with Liz Sherman's annoying repetitions of "not my element", but no.