Van Helsing
The London Assignment

Starring: Hugh Jackman, David Wenham and Robbie Coltrane
Universal Pictures Video
RRP: 12.99
Certificate: PG
Available 17 May 2004

In London, 1889, the mysterious monster-hunter Van Helsing is dispatched to capture the evil demon Mr. Hyde who is terrorising the late-night streets women. In this all-new animated adventure, Van Helsing uncovers Hyde's alter ego, Dr. Jekyll, whose plot behind the murders threatens the British Empire...

The success of last year's Animatrix did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. At least three of 2004's Summer putative blockbusters also aim to tap into the DVD animation market with simultaneously-released prequels, spin-offs and, in one case, a reformatted theme park movie. First out of the gate is this scene-setter for Stephen Sommers' monster flick, shortly to be followed by Dark Fury (from The Chronicles of Riddick, aka Pitch Black 2) and Shrek 3D.

On the value front, this is a disappointment when compared with its inspiration. Just under 13 quid for a mere 30-odd minutes of original animation is a rip-off, even if the short itself is quite well done.

The plot plays yet another riff on the Jack the Ripper/Queen's Surgeon conspiracy theory. Here, Dr Jekyll has been mastering the black arts because he holds a crush on Queen Victoria, morphing into Hyde so that he can steal his Whitechapel victims' life essence and then use it to restore his beloved to her youthful looks.

The story is told predominantly in vivid 2D animation, nicely overseen by debutant director Sharon Bridgeman. The look and feel echo the main movie effectively and, if anything, slightly more time is given over to developing character, motivation and emotion. Meanwhile, there is plenty of busy action, including a memorably cheeky sequence in which our hero fights off a hoard of zombie Beefeaters in the cellars of Buck House.

However, there are times when the animation blows the suspension of disbelief because of clumsy mismatches between 2D and 3D work, particularly during two of its big set-pieces - one on the 19th Century Underground and the other in a balloon over the London skyline.

It is grafifying that the actors who carry any characters here into the flesh provide the cartoon voices as well. The likeable Jackman is especially good at this stuff - pre-Wolverine, he made his name in musical theatre. An on-disc interview with the actor where he talks about the process or translating a character from the real to the ink-and-pixel worlds is also the one worthwhile extra.

Otherwise, the special features are led by two pretty ho-hum 'making of' plugs for the main Van Helsing film and the video game. Some animatic storyboards of sequences from The London Assignment are there as well but poorly presented, with the picture-in-picture storyboards being far too small to allow any useful comparison with the finished product, even on a big screen TV.

The US release costs roughly half that of the disc being flogged to UK viewers. With its transatlantic price tag, this might have been worth a look for fans. As it stands, forget it.

Paul Dempsey


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