Kickstart Productions, Inc. (2006), Lionsgate (February 6, 2007), single disc, 22 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen/1.33:1 pan-and-scan, Dolby Digital 5.1, Not Rated, Retail: $14.98
Abe Lincoln’s best man for fighting supernatural forces turns out to be a… well, a screw-on head.
The Sweatbox Review:
Mike Mignola is appreciated by comic and movie fans for his Hellboy creation, but Mignola is not a one-trick pony. No sirree! Mignola has all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas bouncing around in that glorious bald head of his. Not only has his work appeared in many more diverse comic books over the years, he also came up with some nifty designs for Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Not all of his work has necessarily been as high profile, but having Hellboy to one’s credit does guarantee a certain amount of attention when a new project is announced. Thus, when Dark Horse published a particular, quirky creator-owned book in 2002, quite a number of people paid attention; and that comic went on to win the Eisner Award for Best Humor publication the following year. Of course, I speak of The Amazing Screw-On Head.
Like many successful creative people, Mignola chooses to tell stories that interest him, stories that include all sorts of things that he thinks would be fun to write about and draw. He threw in practically everything he could into the story of The Amazing Screw-On Head, resulting in a rip-roaring adventure that intentionally relied more on ideas than plot. The comic’s success later led to the unexpected pay-off of a television pilot, which aired on the Sci-fi Channel in July of 2006. It is this pilot that has found its way to DVD, couched in a nice little set of extras.
The pilot follows the comic fairly closely, though with a few additional details thrown in to flesh out the characters (though certainly not literally; you’ll see what I mean). In 1862, at The museum Of Dangerous Books And Papers, the theft of an important manuscript is staged by two older women (one being a werewolf) and a monkey. Their boss, the undead Emperor Zombie, intends to call on an ancient warlord who once conquered many peoples with the aid of supernatural powers. With the manuscript in hand, Zombie smokes a translator (yes, I said “smokes”) to discover what the manuscript contains.
With all this happening, it is clear that this mad ghoul must be stopped, and none other than President Abraham Lincoln is the one to make the call. He summons Screw-On Head, his top agent in the realm of supernatural affairs. This is presented as being part of a strange, separate written history of the United States, a history known to only a select few. Screw-On Head has been around for two hundred years or so, a mechanical wonder who has a number of different bodies at his disposal— sort of an early Iron Man without the flesh underneath. For some time, he has served the U.S. of A. as a special agent accustomed to dealing with unnatural dangers.
As Screw-On Head meets with Lincoln, we find out that Zombie’s girlfriend, a vampire named Patience, was once Screw-On Head’s lover in her mortal days. Zombie also has a personal history with Screw-On Head, as he was Head’s first manservant. After becoming a zombie, Zombie set out to murder each of Screw-On Head’s assistants. This is quite known to Head’s current manservant, Mr. Groin, giving Groin extra incentive to help defeat Zombie. Toss in a stuffed dog, plus the appearance of the ancient warlord and a surprising source of his power, and you’ve got yourself quite an amazing little adventure.
Now, if all you want is to be dazzled by imagination and a terrific premise, you will love this pilot to death. However, I found the exercise a little too quick-paced. I realize this was somewhat intentional, this bombarding of the viewer with fantastic ideas, but to me the story moved along entirely too fast. The quick, choppy pace lost me in the end, with too little time for me to absorb what was happening. Not only does the sheer momentum of the presentation obscure the plot, the emotional underpinnings added to the animated story have little value since there is no time to appreciate them. The jagged pace is reinforced by the additional choppiness of the animation, done by DR Movie in Korea. It felt as if the director and the animation team were not in sync, as the limited animation did not serve the story as well as it could have. I almost felt like it would have been better to animate some scenes less, in order that more time could be spent animating scenes where it would have mattered more. Obviously the budget was a factor, but it seemed as if the director could have economized better.
To their credit, the artists did their best to capture the look of Mignola’s artwork. The problem, of course, is that no one draws like Mignola does, so it becomes obvious that not all the animators are comfortable drawing the Mignola way. The art works better if one looks at still frames, but adding movement just doesn’t seem to work terribly well. Those wonderful, blotchy blacks that Mignola uses so expertly just didn’t make the translation to animation entirely smoothly. Detailed shadow movement just doesn’t work well in limited animation.
Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy The Amazing Screw-On Head based on the sheer audacity of the concept. Mignola’s imagination was in full swing when he created this story, and no one creates like he does. And even though the animation wasn’t always working for me, it is always a delight to see something new being tried. Given that this was a pilot, I could see many of the bugs being worked out if The Amazing Screw-On Head was given a new set of episodes. A few more scripts were prepared, but at this writing the series has not been picked up. Maybe strong DVD sales will allow for this to happen. I hope it does, as this seems to be a wonderful premise with lots of room to grow.
Parents may wish to note that, as fun as the premise is, this is not intended for young kids. There is some female werewolf nudity and the action may be too strong for some of the kiddos.
Is This Thing Loaded?
The disc opens with Previews for Happily N’Ever After and Iron Man before giving us the main feature. The true bonus material may not give a long line of bullets at the back of the case, but they are certainly impressive for what is a 22-minute TV show. An Audio Commentary shows up in the Set-Up Menu. The commentary features Director Chris Prynoski and writer/producer Bryan Fuller, ably discussing how the pilot was made. The commentary is not a revelation, but at 22 minutes it doesn’t have a chance to wear out its welcome.
The Special Features menu has only a couple of items, but they satisfy. A Storyboard Comparison (2:14) shows a scene with the storyboard at the top of the screen, while the bottom of the screen is split between storyboard animatics and the final animation.
My favorite part, however, is usually the behind-the-scenes featurette, and this one delivers nicely. From Comic To Cartoon: Making The Amazing Screw-On Head (13:35) gives plenty of airtime to Mignola, who discusses the original comic’s conception and its trip to animation. His wife was apparently pleased when he was initially trying to develop a commercial toy idea, until he turned it into something typically weird. He also mentions that the choppiness of the story was inherent, as it was his intent to simply pile on all his ideas (though I still feel it was detrimental to the cartoon, though that is also an editing and directing problem). Several creators from the cartoon show up as well, including background designer Antonio Canobbio, who was probably most successful in bringing the artistic intent of Mignola to the screen. And, of course, seeing the voice cast in action is always fun.
Also From Lionsgate has a promo for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle DVDs, as well as a reprise of the Iron Man spot.
Keepcase, with a Limited Edition Collectors Album containing artwork by Mignola, and a number of design pieces by Guy Davis.
Ink And Paint:
With only a relatively short run-time for the main feature, Lionsgate decided to spring for offering two visual presentations of The Amazing Screw-On Head. You may therefore choose from the pan & scan 4:3 version, or the more proper anamorphic 16:9 image. Whichever way you go, you are in for a treat. Mignola’s artwork is known for its extravagant use of thick blacks, and that is reproduced here to perfection. Given the short length of the presentation, this should not have been hard to compress, and as such there are few flaws that I could see. The transfer is nearly spot-on perfect, until some shimmer at the end during a pullback of Head in front of the White House.
English-speaking viewers are also given two choices fro the audio, as 5.1 and 2.0 versions are both available for selection. Naturally, I selected the 5.1 version, which had a nice, full sound across the front speakers. The bass was nice too, when called upon, though not demo material. Use of the rear speakers seemed sporadic, but there may have been some subtle ambience there that I missed, as the sound design (music and effects) stayed pretty busy the entire time.
The voice cast, it needs to be said, is superb. Paul Giamatti turns out to be the perfect voice for Screw-On Head. After seeing him recently in The Illusionist and then here, he is managing to ensconce himself as one of my favorite actors. David Hyde Pierce is a wonderfully droll Dr. Zombie, naturally. Watching this pilot, I was struck by how similar Giamatti’s and Pierce’s voices are, which I never would have thought before, given their dissimilar appearances. This either makes for a nice casting choice, making the two nemeses flip-sides of each other, or an unfortunate coincidence, depending on whether one desires more tonal separation or not. Molly Shannon and Patton Oswalt bring their talents to the microphone as well.
The disc is Close Captioned, and contains subtitles in English and Spanish.
The Amazing Screw-On Head is a wild ride, outrageous with its ideas and breathtaking in its rapid-fire presentation of them. The sheer creativity is almost overwhelming, though, and more disciplined writing and editing (not to mention more fluid animation) would have made for a stronger film. This is of course a matter of opinion, and I can easily see why some fans loved the show. With a relatively low list price, this is a pretty good value even as a purchase, though if you are simply curious then a rental may be more in order. If you do check it out, you should at least be pleased with the DVD presentation, with its near-perfect video, good audio, and pleasing special features.