My exposure to this film was extremely limited, which is not saying much considering the advertising budget on this film was non- existent. I only saw one commercial, an ad placed on the Adult Swim block of Cartoon Network. The second being a guest appearance of Rob Riggle on E!'s The Soup promoting the film. I was (morbidly) sold on Hell & Back from the moment I saw that ad on Adult Swim. Any Stop Motion film being advertised at 1AM on a Tuesday night definitely has my attention! When I further researched the film, I had a difficult time finding any concrete information on a release platform for the film. The only info available was the October 2ndrelease date. I was convinced this would get an ultra-limited theatrical release, with a VOD release on the immediate horizon in time for Halloween. So when I checked my local movie times last week to see, by any chance, if it would be playing. I was shocked to see it had 4 showings each day. I did not have the opportunity to see it opening weekend, but went the first chance I could, a Monday afternoon. I would have been shocked if I was not the only person in the theater. Boy
Was I spot on!
Hell & Back follows the adventures of Remy, Augie, and Curt. Our trio works at a dilapidated amusement park. Augie, the park's handyman, is tasked with fixing the park with no money and even further dwindling attendance. Remy "helps" his friend by talking to the park's fortune teller and taking her "Devil Book." Remy soon discovers the book has a crying Devil page and concocts a scheme to draw people to the amusement park, akin to "Jesus Toast." Soon enough, Remy and Curt make a "blood oath" on the book, over Remy loaning Curt "1 breath mint" (I'm not making this up), and Curt pledging an oath to repay the mint loan, "on the pages of the devil's book." Curt quickly makes it known he has no intention of repaying the mint loan, which leads to him being drawn into a vortex leading straight to the gates of, you guessed it, HELL. Remy and Augie quickly enter the portal to rescue their friend. It is here we are introduced to the realm of Hades. We are introduced to the Devil himself and his Demon-minions who spend eternity torturing the Lost Souls that inhabit this realm. We learn that the devil is really a metrosexual (he even listens to a trendy boy band while in the shower!), who only uses the "giant red horn physique" in order to "motivate the troops (the demons)." It is not long before Remy and Augie's presence is sensed and "Barb the Angel" (an oversexualized angel, voiced by the most marquee worthy actor in the film, Susan Sarandon) is dispatched to return them to the world of the living. Remy and Augie go searching for Orpheus, the Greek Mythological figure, who can save their friend. In the process of searching for Orpheus, Deema appears, a purple-horned, demon-human hybrid, who has her own motives in locating Orpheus. The story goes on from there and you could guess the twists and turns.
Hell & Back is not anything to get "riled up" over. Is it so awful that the distributing studio (Freestyle Releasing) felt it was such a "lost cause," it dumped the film into theaters without any sort of marketing push? No. Is it a great movie? Also,no. This film would have been heralded as a classic, if it was not for South Park. The film made me laugh once, yet I genuinely enjoyed it. The art design is a cross between MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch and HBO's Crashbox. Nothing groundbreaking, but there are a couple of pieces which are eye-catching. The most notable being the "Devil's Gondola," which has multiple cogs and gears aided by skeleton hands pulling its way across the cables that transverse its home and destination ports. The only stand out characters are the Demons and the Lost Souls they perpetually torture. These scenes are the stand outs of the film and are the few that illicit laughter. One particular scene (which can be found in the trailer), involves a Demon operating a Pizza Hut- Taco Bell dual restaurant, goading a Lost Soul into ordering a pizza, only to inform him, "we don't carry pizza" even though the sign says they do. Scenes like this occur throughout the film (and even over the end credits), yet are few and far in between. Ultimately, the film's detriment lies with its human characters and Deema. One scene involves Remy and Augie ogling Deema, as she disrobes in order to restore proper ballast in a submarine they need to transverse Hell (who knew Hell has water?). I honestly do not know who this scene was meant for? It is an R-rated film, yet wants me to be amused by an animated purple, devil-esque woman parading around in a skimpy cotton outfit. Hell & Back's largest issue is its bipolar tonal shifts. One half of the film is juvenile and tries ever so hard to appeal at a sophomoric audience. The Robot Chicken audience would roll their eyes at a lot of the jokes here. Yet there is subtle, dry humor present, that if you mentally check out long enough, you will miss a good one-liner or two! I am pressed to believe much of the latter stems from ad-libbed lines from the voice cast, which is chocked full of under-appreciated comedians (except Nick Swardson). Hell & Back is the definition of a mixed bag. There is much to dislike about the film, yet there are enough small gems in it, that to the right person will be appreciated. Recommended to stop-motion animation enthusiasts who have a strong sense of patience.