Up until that then, del Toro had been known - in the United States, at least - for making films like Blade II and Mimic... popcorn flicks with a negotiable amount of substance. However, as of 2006's release of the incredibly acclaimed fantasy film Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has acquired and cultivated the title of "Visionary"... to the point that he has been selected to direct Jackson's Lord of the Rings prequels based on The Hobbit.
In a lot of cases, this kind of thing can backfire greatly (anybody see Heaven's Gate?). In this case, the results are fantastic. Del Toro both directed and scripted Hellboy II: The Golden Army, based not on a specific published comic book, but on an original story he wrote with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. This film is unbounded in a lot of ways. The introductions are largely done, the premise has been set up and the suspension of disbelief has already been instilled in the now-loyal audience.
This leaves Mignola and del Toro to focus on one thing: Telling a Great Story as well as possible. One of the issues here is that in many ways this feels a bit less like Hellboy II than it does "Hellboy Redux". Oh, don't get me wrong, it's great fun watching every little thing happen... but a lot of these happenings are very similar to (though perhaps a little improved over) the previous film. Both films deal directly with an ancient menace returning to attack the human race, with Hellboy (Ron Perlman) forced to question which world he belongs in, ours or theirs while he tries desperately to sort out and bring to life his rocky relationship with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).
To be fair, the formula still works very well. Much like the first film, we begin in flashback when Hellboy was quite literally just a little boy from hell (and played by make-up artist and actress Montse Ribe). We closely see the relationship between this boy and the admirable Professor Bruttenholm (well played, as before, by John Hurt) and just why they truly thought of themselves as Father and Son. This prelude offers us a beautifully animated story about a pre-historic war between Humanity and the Magical Creatures which culminated in the creation of an unstoppable force called "The Golden Army", which ultimately led to a truce between both worlds.
In the present day Nuada, Prince of Elves (played by Luke Goss) seeks to come out of exile, find and activate The Golden Army and reshape the planet in the form he feels is the truly right way. This is whether his father King Balor (Roy Dotrice) and his beautiful twin sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) support him in this or not.
Can anybody help Nuala oppose her brother? But of course... the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, featuring your favorite creatures of the night and mine, Liz, Hellboy and, of course, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, who does his own voice now). With both Bruttenholm and Myers gone, boss man Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) has his hands full keeping the BPRD a secret, especially with Hellboy still making his nightly excursions. This is, in part, because the relationship with Liz has begun driving him crazy (even though she frequently traipses around in her panties). To this end, Manning brings in a new Chief, an ectoplasmic expert named Johann Krauss (usually played physically by John Alexander and hilariously voiced by Seth Macfarlane). This guy has to be seen to be believed... needless to say, he has much more in common with Hellboy, Liz and Abe than he does Tom Manning. Too bad for you, Tommy Baby!
This beautiful film follows the plight of Hellboy, Liz, Abe and Krauss as they battle Nuada and his minions in an attempt to prevent him from finding the keys to and hiding place of The Golden Army. To fail in preventing this means the certain end to the Human Race. And let me tell you, each step of the way is fantastic and fascinating in a very Pan's Labyrinth kind of way. This artistry and spectacle is tempered by a wild action that keeps this one feeling like a Summer Blockbuster!
del Toro keeps his vision together wonderfully while allowing his very fine actors to bring that vision to life (along with a great deal of eye-popping special effects). Ron Perlman and Selma Blair are excellent in their parts, making these characters that debuted in Mignola's decidedly 2-D style multi-faceted and complexly layered. The character development and story here are superb. Meanwhile, the plight of the twins Nuada and Nuala are well served by Goss and Walton, who bring forth the pain of being enemies who truly love each other and share a supernatural familial bond.
As great as all of this is, and it is, Doug Jones steals the show here! Jones has been the man behind a great many masks over the last two decades, from The Faun himself (in Pan's Labyrinth) to The Silver Surfer (in the Fantastic Four sequel) to a Gentleman (in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush") to even that Moon Head guy (in those McDonalds Mac Tonight commercials). Here he not only works through the mask to bring an enchanting humanity to Abe Sapien, but actually uses that mask to make this unreal character much more realistic. As well as David Hyde Pierce did as the voice of Abe Sapien, Jones' unified approach makes the character even better. He did Sapien's voice on the set of Hellboy, but was overdubbed and was also the voice of Abe in Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms and Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron. Needless to say, he's got the voice down to the point that everything about Abe Sapien seems natural, from his brainy, bookish side, to his gunslinging action side, to his party side (the scene of a loaded Abe and Hellboy singing Barry Manilow is worth the price of a ticket by itself) to even his romantic side as he finds himself very much in love with Nuala. The man is incredible and though Abe himself does manage to steal the show here, Doug also plays two other parts onscreen (The Chamberlain and The Angel of Death). Only Brian Steele managed to play more... and in much smaller parts.
This might not quite be as accessible as the previous film for a mass audience, as it goes much farther down the rabbit hole into the realm of the fantastic (see The Troll Market... wow), but fans of Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth will find a lot to love in this very well-made movie that both surpasses and echoes its predecessor. It's a treat for the eyes and still manages to be smart enough to keep the old intelligence-insults at bay. What's more, there is no clear-cut "Bad Guy" in this and the audience has to keep up with the moral questions to bother with the answers.
Four Stars out of Five for Hellboy II: The Golden Army. It's a film packed with humor, action, heart and intelligence with a woven tapestry of disbelief so great that even things that should be predictable are surprises. The move from Revolution and Sony to Universal was fortunate for many reasons, not the least of which are the varied references to Universal Studios Classic Horror. Del Toro helps tell his great story by subtly showing varied clips on televisions just in frame. Liz and Hellboy's relationship (along with Hellboy's big question of where he belongs) is juxtaposed with and amplified by scenes from Bride of Frankenstein, while Abe's taste of Romance is bounced off of a shot from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Even The Wolf Man is well-used in that metafictional, metaphorical way. Is Hellboy II another Classic for Universal? Time will tell... but it sure as shootin' Big Baby is one HELL of a companion piece to a great series of Comics. See you Trolls, Goblins, Elves, Fallen Angels and Battle Droids in the next reel!
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