by Jay Seaver
There's a running gag in "Hell & Back", arguably the funniest thing in the movie, where a demon voiced by John Farley subjects souls to various mildly annoying situations (stopped escalators, a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell that has no pizza, etc.) and zings them with "welcome to Hell!" Naturally, I doubt that any of these "tortures" can come close to being the crew of stop-motion animators spending weeks on end moving plasticene models and changing their poses bit by bit to give this nearly witless film some illusion of life. Spending days moving a mouth up and down so that it syncs up with a bored-sounding Nick Swardson delivering a line that uses the word "fuck" like a comma must crush a soul like nothing else.Swardson plays Remy, a barker at the extremely run-down amusement park where he spent much of his childhood, now working there along with lifelong friends Augie (voice of T.J. Miller), who is constantly kept busy fixing things, and Curt (voice of Rob Riggle), now the assistant manager. When the fortune teller's magic book and a trivial blood oath suck Curt into a portal to Hell, Augie and Remy follow, only to discover that the demons intend to sacrifice Curt. Hearing that Orpheus (voice of Danny McBride) is the guy you talk to when you want to bust someone out of Hell, they go looking for him along with sexy half-demon Deema (voice of Mila Kunis), while the Devil (voice of Bob Odenkirk) chases them in the hopes of impressing Barb (voice of Susan Sarandon), the angel he's had a crush on for centuries.
"Punishment for animation-loving adults."
Trips to Hell have been used as a means to comedic and satiric ends for millennia, but in the hands of writers Tom Gianas, Zeb Wells, and Hugh Sterbakov, this fertile ground is used mainly for weak stand-up jokes, pounding away at minor irritants and shrugging off the truly dark material. Sometimes that inversion can work, especially if the writers have a point to make about the characters' priorities, but not here. Instead, it mostly comes across as mean-spirited and misplaced, crass without being lively. It tries to be self-deprecating at points, but if you can't pull back the curtain and reveal something clever behind your idiocy, that doesn't gain much.
It doesn't help much that the producers have assembled a voice cast full of names you might recognize, but that's about as much as you can say about them. Nick Swardson, T.J. Miller, and Rob Riggle add nothing in the way of personality to generic characters, and don't even have distinctive enough voices is fun in and of itself. Bob Odenkirk is stuck giving a silly voice to a devil that's not extreme enough in any direction (monstrous-but-thwarted, surprisingly-ineffective, or even regular-guy) to be funny, and it isn't enough. Danny McBride at least commits to a slacker Orpheus, and he gets more to do that Susan Sarandon, whose slutty angel never becomes more than a half-formed idea. Mila Kunis winds up easily the best of the bunch, actually playing the sarcastic hottie who's smarter than every guy around her like something approaching a real character.
The characters they voice aren't badly animated beyond an intentionally crude style, at least. Hell and Back may not have the sort of detail and ingenuity found in the likes of a Laika production, for instance, but it never looks like folks are making do despite not having the cash to do something properly. Character designs are basic, at least all seeming like they belong into the same movie, and when they speak, it hits a decent spot between looking like they shouldn't be able to talk and the lips being much more articulate than the rest of the character. Directors Gianas and Ross Shuman handle the animation well enough, but it's a dull hour and a half in terms of being a movie.I want to close with some sort of pithy Hell-related zinger, but since one's not coming, and as one of my main complaints about the movie is that it's lazy, I'll just say that "Hell and Back" is not a very entertaining movie, and it sucks that this is one of the few animated fims for adults getting anything close to a wide release, making the medium look worse terrible despite being capable of so much.
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originally posted: 10/07/15 11:41:45