I have a particular soft spot for stop motion animation. I grew up on Wallace and Gromit and other Aardman projects, fell in love with A Nightmare Before Christmas and other Laika projects. Now I am older I also appreciate and enjoy the more surrealist animation of Jans Svankmeyer I even had dreams of becoming an animator myself, I would make little plastercine blobs move around a tiny set my dad built, in front of a webcam. Looking back at them now, they were not the best things I made, partly because I was young and I didn’t have the patience or ambition to really try I think. I still secretly (or not so secretly) yearn to make more of those little projects, though adult responsibilities, jobs, friendships and other things make it difficult to participate in what is a very time consuming hobby. So it pains me to see a film that is not only bad, but offensive; Hell and Back is frankly the worst stop motion film that I have seen so far.
The plot of Hell and Back mainly concerns three friends, Remy, Curt and Augie, who work at a rundown pier carnival that they hung out at as children. Remy (Nick Swardson) now a promoter, tries to bring in business by finding a crying portrait of the devil in a book belonging to the carnival’s fortune teller. An unbelieving Curt (Rob Riggle) makes a blood oath with Remy for a mint, which of course he breaks. Curt is then dragged into hell and it is up to Remy and Augie (TJ Miller) to save him from The Devil (Bob Odenkirk) with the help of an angel named Barb (Susan Sarandon) a half-demon, Deema (Mila Kunis) the daughter of a washed up Orpheus (Danny McBride).
Written by Tom Gianas, Hugh Sterbakov and Zeb Wells, Hell and Back feels confused and disjointed. There are far too many plot lines that seem to be picked up and dropped almost instantly. We follow what are two main plot threads, Remy and Augie trying to save Curt on one hand, and Curt offering advice and generally “bro-ing out” with The Devil. However within those two plots (Curt’s seems the most pointless and contradictory, where you think there is going to be an interesting dynamic when Remy and Augie arrive to rescue their friend who is now the assistant manager of Hell, but it actually goes nowhere), the film zips along without satisfying reasons as to why things are happening. It is almost as if there are 4 or 5 different films competing for presence in an 84 minute film. Major events and character revelations are trivialised and rushed. For instance, there is a scene where Remy’s character arch takes place over the course of a matter of seconds, with no real crisis tension or reason why his character has changed thus. There must be character development, stakes and a plot but I find myself struggling to care.
The main reason I don’t care is probably because of how awful the characters are. Each male character is a repulsive person in some sort of capacity. Curt and Remy are just douche bags, Orpheus is a washed up narcissist and The Devil, well, I mean he IS The Devil. The only male character who is anywhere near a decent human being is Augie, but he isn’t really a character more like a fat virgin architype. On the other hand every single female character is sexualised for no adequate reason I am a fan of TJ Miller and Bob Odenkirk, stars of Deadpool and Better Call Saul! respectively, they are funny and charismatic guys. Similarly I really like Susan Sarandon as an individual and talented person however in this film, everything, every joke, every quip, every witticism, just falls flat.
While people may argue that comedy is purely subjective and I cannot apply my 20 something film snob sensibilities to a film that was made for immature teenagers, I spent the 90 minutes watching the damn thing I am going to get something out of it, even if it is the cathartic tearing to pieces on a blog no one really reads. The jokes seem to be mainly focused at the lowest common denominator; homophobia, sex, sexism, and general awfulness. I do like black humour, I like dark humour, I sometimes even like crude humour, what I dislike is cruel and vindictive jokes, that are heartless and pointless. There is even a running gag about how Orpheus was raped by a tree, which is a blatant and tasteless rip off of Sam Rami’s Evil Dead.
The animation, while it could be good for television, does not really sparkle in a feature film. Any animation is a long and time consuming process and I do feel bad in critiquing the work of unknown animators, but it is nowhere near the high a quality that one would expect from a film released in 2015. ParaNorman was released almost 2 years before this, we may have been spoilt by Laika and Aardman, but that means other studios need to put the effort into making the most high quality animation they can. The designs also feel a little lazy and boring. And while there is an argument for individual style, most of the character model designs are not particularly original or interesting. When I think of hell, I think of something Lovecraftian; terrifying and mind boggling architecture, unsettling and impossible monsters, each a gibbering mass of pure malevolence. However that is not what we got with Hell and Back, we got three or four of the same designs placed in and amongst brown rock strata. The demon designs where so over used that I started noticing that the demons bodies where just squares and triangles, literally just squares and triangles with little trumpet heads. We’re in Hell come on, have a little bit more imagination.
This film was not worth my time, it is not worth your time and it is definite not worth the time of the poor technicians and talent who were roped into a terrible mess of a film. It is a blotch on what I consider to be a great art form that is already under represented in an age dominated by CGI.