Oscar contenders are all well and good, but right now, I’m in the mood for something quick and easy. Something that I can watch in virtually no time, and write about with minimal effort. Luckily, there’s an 82-minute R-rated stop-motion animated film out right now that fits the bill just fine.
Hell and Back begins when three goofball friends mess around with an evil book of spells for no adequate reason. In short order, one of them is sucked into Hell to be sacrificed and the other two follow after to go and rescue him. The plot and premise are so flimsy that they may as well not exist. It’s really all about the humor, so let’s talk a bit about that.
The film shares a director and a couple of writers with the crew of “Robot Chicken”, and anyone who knows that show will indeed find a bit of familiar territory here. Though in terms of animation quality, plot structure, and style of humor, I’d say the film actually has more in common with “Titan Maximum”, a prematurely canceled sister show to “Robot Chicken”.
For those who don’t know either program, the closest comparison would be This is the End, another over-the-top crass movie about overgrown man-children getting figuratively and literally fucked by demons. Except that End had a rambling and improvisatory style of humor, with jokes that kept going on past the point of being funny. This film takes the opposite approach, machine-gunning punchline after punchline about every random subject from Dell Computers to poop jokes to boy bands to sex jokes to drug jokes to dick jokes… to more dick jokes… to more dick jokes… to more — you get the picture.
Watching the souls of the damned get tortured through mundane and bureaucratic annoyances is as smart as the comedy ever gets. This movie has absolutely no aspiration to be anything other than loud, stupid, and over-the-top crass. There is not a single goddamn thing that’s off-limits, so long as it’s shocking enough to catch the audience off-guard and get a laugh. Just to give you an idea of where the bar is set, there’s a huge recurring plot point about a character getting raped by a tree. There’s a song about it and everything. Not even kidding.
Something else that the film has in common with “Robot Chicken” and This is the End is that somehow, they got some alarmingly good talent to debase themselves in this cast. Aside from Nick Swardson and TJ Miller as our two slacker protagonists, we’ve got Rob Riggle playing their doomed buddy. There’s Mila Kunis (another “Robot Chicken” regular), playing a sexy and friendly half-demon. There’s Bob Odenkirk playing Satan himself. Danny McBride voices a washed-up Orpheus. Susan freaking Sarandon, of all people, shows up to play a slutty angel. Then we’ve got various bit parts voiced by Maria Bamford, Lance Bass, Jennifer Coolidge, David Koechner, Michael Pena, Brian Posehn, Greg Proops, and J.B. Smoove.
And fuck if I could tell you what a single one of them is doing here, aside from picking up a quick and easy paycheck.
I don’t even know what else to say about Hell and Back, because the film simply is what it is. It’s an explicitly juvenile movie without a single brain cell to its name, and it makes no apology for that. This isn’t a movie that was made to be taken seriously. Shit, I don’t even think it’s a movie that was made to be seen in theaters. It’s a movie that was made to be watched with your buddies on a couch while you all get stoned off your asses.
If that’s the kind of gleefully immature good time you’re looking for, or if you just want to kick back and enjoy some easy vulgar jokes, give the film a rental and have a blast. But if that’s not what you’re into… well, chances are that you didn’t even know this film existed in the first place. And you’d be so much better off if you just kept on pretending that it doesn’t.