Take a Drink: every time Augie’s weight/virginity is mentioned.
Do a Shot: for every familiar voice you recognize.
Take a Drink: every time Madam Zonar notes that’s not the first time she’s heard something.
Take a Drink: every time you wonder if this is written by a 14-year-old boy.
Take a Drink: every time you wonder why you’re watching this at all.
By: 3-Deep (Four Beers) –
For all intents and purposes, I should have liked Hell and Back. Not only was I among the few who knew it even existed, I was downright excited to see it. Like Adam and Eve were tempted by the apple in the Garden of Eden (that’s right, I just went Biblical on your asses), I, too, was tempted by the naughty wonders I saw in store here. Sure, the trailers weren’t encouraging. But they never are for these sort of things. What the hell could possibly go wrong with this one?
I mean, it seemingly has everything I love: stop-motion animation, T.J. Miller, Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins, Rob Riggle, H. Jon Benjamin, Danny McBride, sexy demons, demon beer, dick jokes. And it was produced by Alexander Bulkey, Corey Campodoncio, and Eric Blyler, the creative heads who helped bring to life such adult-focused animated television hits like Robot Chicken and BoJack Horseman. It even has Susan Sarandon as a literal angel, for crying out loud. It should have been a godsend. Instead, it felt like pure hell. So why is that?
On the surface, there’s quite a bit to like about this film. For one, the animation is charming in an amateurish sort of way, and isn’t without its occasionally inspired moments. What it lacks in fluidity it makes up for in creative spunk and careful consideration. And the various backdrops in particular stand out in their lavishly imaginative detail. Even when it seems cheap, it’s clear the animators put themselves through their own form of hell to get this one to look as good as it can be.
And the voice cast — also including the likes of Nick Swardson, Mila Kunis, Lance Bass (?!), Jennifer Coolidge, Maria Bamford, David Koechner, Michael Pena, Brian Posehn, Paul Sheer, J.B. Smoove, Kumail Nanjiani, the list goes on — is an extremely impressive line-up, and they all perform admirable and respectable work to boot. Tompkins is the stand-out of the bunch, as per usual. And there’s a loving commitment towards the bizarre and the demented throughout that’s appeasing in its own right. They all carry a lot of goodwill, and keep you hoping, even downright praying, that Hell and Back gets better as it stumbles along. But it doesn’t — for one key reason.
As soon as this movie starts, it immediately feels off. It’s hard to tell whether it’s undercooked or overcooked at first, but it’s clear the screenplay by Hugh Sterbakov, Zeb Wells, and co-director Tom Gianas is the culprit for dismay. Their work, essentially a rip-off of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, is never less than aggressively lazy, meanderingly lame, overly juvenile and crass for the sake of being crass. There’s no real sense of wit or cleverness to any of the lowbrow jokes at hand. And quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine how they not only sold it to all the respective parties lending their voice talents here, but got all these talented animators to provide their hard-earned efforts to such a tortured labor as this. Did these writers sell their souls to make this happen? It would certainly explain why Hell and Back is such a soulless effort.
It’s bad enough our lead characters, Remy (Swardson) and Augie (Miller), are just knock-offs of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves’ iconic ‘80s comedy legends Bill & Ted — as noted and stressed before. What makes it worse is that they lack any personalities whatsoever. Essentially, Augie is fat, while Remy is not. That’s about as deep as they get. It’s hard to attribute almost anything about them beyond their physical appearances, and even that is fairly limited, especially by animation standards. They’re entirely distinct-less, and the fact that they have no chemistry with one another makes any resemblance of emotional weight a non-starter from the get-go. Their adventure is definitely more bogus than excellent.
And then there’s the devil. And, admittedly, Bob Odenkirk is giving this one all he’s got. Sure, there’s a mild joy to be had in seeing the devil sucking whip cream canisters to get high or motorboating a picture of angel wings. And maybe this lewd, more personable interpretation of the Prince of Darkness is what sold the project to the Better Call Saul frontliner. He makes the character his own, and relishes in it. But beyond this, there’s nothing particularly funny or interesting about this depiction. He’s just another dumb asshole like the rest of the characters, and his inability to stand out beyond his demonic tendencies ultimately kills any threat this character might have been by the end.
It’s also never clear if we’re really supposed to sympathize and/or care for this red demon the same way we did for Satan in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, or if we’re solely supposed to laugh at him. I don’t think the writers really gave a damn either way.
Even at a mere 85 minutes, Hell and Back is a goddamn struggle to watch. And by the end, you just want this hellish ordeal to be over and done with. The pain may not be eternal, but damn sure feels like it at times. And by the time the sexually aggressive Evil Dead-esque trees get involved, you hope to God the remaining runtime is just ten minutes of credits you can skip.
Again, I really wanted to love this movie. It takes a lot for me not to at least appreciate a stop-motion animated feature, especially one where Greek mythology legend Orpheus is depicted as a brohard who thinks the idea of marathoning the Big Momma’s House trilogy is the ultimate hangout activity amongst dudes. There’s a wildly more creative movie stuck in purgatory here, and the cast involved certainly suggests as much alone. There’s hell to pay here; just not in the way the filmmakers intended.