With an intriguing cast that includes such noteworthy names as Mila Kunis, Danny McBride, Susan Sarandon, Bob Odenkirk, T.J. Miller, Nick Swardson and Rob Riggle (and Lance Bass…?) it would seem that the new animated action adventure feature Hell and Back is sure to strike gold. In addition to this stellar group of actors, writers Hugh Sterbakov, Zeb Wells, and director Ross Shuman all hail from one of the funniest sources of late night comedy, Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken. Not to be put to shame, their co-writer and co-director Tom Gianas also carries an impressive resume, with writing credits from a wide variety of television programs including Pretend Time, The Man Show, Drunk History, and sixty episodes of Saturday Night Live. Considering how this large group of extremely talented comedians all came together to create Hell and Back, it’s honestly just surprising that this animated comedic thriller aimed towards an adult audience isn’t completely hysterical.
At first, the premise seemed promising. Three best friends, Remy, Augie, and Curt work at a dying amusement park that contains more memories than these high school buddies can count. The rides are falling apart, the electricity is inconsistent at best, and boardwalk is littered with trash, but due to nostalgia and a desperate need for cash, this place has become their home away from home. When word arrives that the bank is foreclosing on their precious park, Remy searches for a quick fix to their financial restraints. He may have gone a little overboard by summoning up the spirit of the devil, and accidentally banishing his friend Curt to hell through the ancient ritual of a blood oath sacrifice, but he honestly went in with the best intentions. Now, it’s up to Remy and Augie to tumble down the flaming rabbit hole, into the pits of hell, to retrieve their friend and return to the surface, out of the scorching depths, before their souls, too, are claimed by Satan himself.
Although the individual skits on Robot Chicken are usually a laugh riot, and sometimes, they even carry clever subliminal messages behind their crass jokes, a large part of the show’s success is its anthology style of presentation. While many of the segments are funny, every now and then, like any show on television, the jokes don’t quite hit, but viewers don’t mind because they never overstay their welcome. It would be easy to say that the reason why Hell and Back falls short of its ambitions is because it feels like one long dragged out joke from the television show, but it’s more than that. The problem isn’t the feature length runtime, but simply because the jokes that fill the film just aren’t funny.
It’s a real shame, too, because there’s a lot of good stuff here. Animated films made for adults can have a real cult following, such is the case with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However, it is a difficult, delicate balance of blue comedy and a throwback to prepubescent giggles that’s required of such a feat, and few filmmakers have the objectivity to realize when they’ve wandered too far into either territory. Unfortunately, Gianas and Shuman fail to make this distinction. The two don’t seem to realize that despite several filmmakers from the ’80s and ’90s and Jonah Hill’s best intentions, male rape is still not funny. This is especially true when the same joke about male rape is dragged out for an entire film, and it soon becomes clear that these brilliant comics have nothing else hidden up their sleeves.
It’s not that the film has nothing to offer. Without a doubt, the most triumphant aspect of Hell and Back it its glorious use of stop-motion animation. The design of the amusement park is eerily reminiscent of that one attraction-filled destination that every kid solicited throughout their youth, only to grow up and realize how truly dirty and rundown it really was. Satan’s quarters in hell look like the steam punk version of a Bond villain’s secret headquarters, adding to the hilarity that this is one devil that just wants to be liked and respected by his peers. Also, the inclusion of mythological characters Orpheus and Charon bodes well for the fantastical nature of the film, although it would have been more satisfying to see more creatures from Greek folklore pop up to round out this promising portrayal of the underworld.
However, the film works best during its brief moments of sincerity between the characters, who otherwise appear selfish and immature, despite their big rescue mission. They may have entered the gates of hell with a plan to retrieve their best friend, but the detached attitudes and crass humor shared by all of the people (and demons) in this film make it hard to care for anyone, let alone fear for their lives when they’re put in peril.