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Hell and Back (2015)

You wait forever for an adult stop-motion movie, and then two come along in the same year. Only ShadowMachine's Hell and Back could not be much more different from the Oscar-nominated Anomalisa, Crude, rude and packed to the gills with jokes based on bodily functions, fluids, and other such 'mature' content. Subtle this is not.

The story centres on a trio of friends who work at a run-down fair-ground. After accidentally summoning the Devil, (as you do) one of them is sucked into a portal into Hell, and the other two must follow to try and bring him back. And hilarity ensues.. or does it?

There's nothing wrong with a bit of potty humour every now and again. Unless your tastes lean towards the conservative, there's nothing stopping swearing and sex jokes being effective either. The problem is that Hell and Back, like certain other examples of 'adult' animation seem to think that the idea of animated characters saying or doing things that animated characters normally don't is innately hilarious in itself. Because you see cartoons are for kids, right?

Of course, humour is a hugely subjective thing. To some, this may be gut-bustingly hilarious. So although your mileage may vary, the big deal-breaker here, is that Hell and Back is just not very funny. This is try-too-hard, sub-Family-Guy-at-it's-worst level humour that thinks making jokes about rape are funny. It's thoroughly mean-spirited too and seems to hate its own lead characters. The lead character of Augie is subject to a constant barrage of fat jokes that starts from before he even appears on screen for the first time.

The female characters have thoroughly thankless roles, with the handful of them being either hyper-sexualised or grotesque and sexless. The female lead of Deema is supposed to be a bad-ass "Strong Female Character™ "  which is slightly undermined by her character design, constantly visible nipples and all.

Does that mean the film is completely without redeeming qualities? The design and stop-motion animation itself is perfectly decent, although it's not going to be giving LAIKA any sleepless nights. Once the film actually descends into the underworld there's a pretty fun feel to the design, with a feel not a million miles away from the creatures of more family-friendly fare such as The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride. The scenes when we first encounter the firey pits of hell also hold some of the film's best jokes-which perhaps not un-coincidently don't rely on the more crude excesses of most of the rest of the film.

The voice cast also boasts some decent performances with TJ Miller as great as ever, and Bob Odenkirk doing some pretty great work as The Devil himself. It's just a shame they weren't working with better material.

This review is coming ultimately from a place of frustration. Adult animated films are so rare in the English-speaking world, that when one comes along that squanders its potential as badly as this it can't help but be a big disappointment. Especially as this same studio is responsible for one of the best adult animated TV series out there, the wonderful BoJack Horseman. Despite the R-rating, it's hard to shake the feeling this is primarily going to appeal to at 15-year-old boys. To anyone older than that though- physically or mentally- then this is nothing but one hell of a missed opportunity.

HELL AND BACK is available now on DVD  and Amazon video in the US and Streaming On NETFLIX (US and UK).