Hellboy in Fantasyland
I'm becoming convinced that Guillermo del Toro is the legitimate successor to Jim Henson. Why? The man just loves creatures -- designing them, molding them, bringing them to life. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is chock full of them, and they truly encapsulate the spirit of this venture. They also retain a certain tangible quality that makes us believe they're not entirely computer generated. There are people in costumes, lots of makeup, and I would like to believe puppets are also involved. Henson would probably have been flourishing in the same vein.
With the previous Hellboy movie, del Toro brought his flare to another man's creation -- the comic books of Mike Mignola. I wouldn't be able to tell you for sure how much of that movie was del Toro and how much was Mignola, but Hellboy II feels much more, shall we say, del Toro-esque. While the first movie had a more secret-government-agency angle to it, this one lives in the world of fairy tales and monsters. It starts with a flashback, where Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is being read a story by his adoptive father (John Hurt). The tale of elves and trolls, kings and princes, and the humans who wage war with them is told visually using charming wooden figures. It sets the tone for fantasy right away.
Del Toro feels fully comfortable with the movie -- not only does he get to play with his favorite creature toys in his preferred fantasy setting, but his film also conveys a looseness that often lapses into silliness. Although the driving force of the plot involves the quest of the mythical human-hating Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) for the controls to an invincible enchanted army that will destroy mankind, this grave matter appears almost to be a side plot to the movie's heart: the longing of outsiders for acceptance.
While not an uncommon theme, it's treated here with a healthy amount of humor and gets played through the girl problems of Hellboy and his amphibious colleage Abe (Doug Jones). Since Hellboy is a freak-of-nature to humankind, his goal of general acceptance seems hard to reach, but, as he will learn, the love and acceptance of one outweighs the acceptance of the rest of the world. However, getting to that point of enlightenment proves bumpy, as he and his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) are having relationship troubles.
Meanwhile, Abe finds a soulmate too, but since it's his first time in love, he's handling it awkwardly. So nevermind all that threatening stuff with Prince Nuada whipping around his magical spear and sending monsters out into the human world. The highlight of the movie turns out to be a musical interlude, where Hellboy and Abe drown their sorrows in beer and sing along to Barry Manilow. If you're OK with this, then you've got the spirit -- Hellboy II is downright goofy.
When it's not being funny, the creatures steal the show, from wicked piranha-like sprites to a large brute with a retractable fist weapon; from a giant beanstalk monster to an awesome, scary angel with eyes on its wings instead of its face (yes, how very del Toro); from the plentiful non-human denizens of a marketplace, a darker version of Diagon Alley, to a magnificent stone gatekeeper to a secret world. Since Hellboy II traffics heavily in illogic (e.g., the main villain is weirdly patient a few too many times for me), it relies on these magical visuals to keep your eyes interested, and character-oriented comedy/drama to keep your heart invested. Perlman's sarcastic attitude and his human longings continue to hold up well, even as much of the action and story doesn't make sense -- you stay with him because he's cool-looking, intimidating yet approachable, and funny. And you could say the same thing about the movie itself.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for sequences of sci-fi action and violence and some language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com