There should be little doubt after “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” which will be released nationwide July 11, that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is the heir apparent to Jim Henson. The paper-skinned creatures with eyes coming out of strange places, desperately contorted features, and bodies seemingly sculpted out of nightmares that have become emblematic of del Toro’s vision thanks to their appearance in “Pan’s Labyrinth” are rooted in the tradition of Henson and other creature creators, like Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston. del Toro deployed these creatures to excellent effect in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and in “Hellboy II” he builds off of and expands his palate of the fantastic with characters that range from waifish elf royalty to slug-like goblins to some sort of lanky underground creature with a city on its head (that also doubles as a crown).
While watching “Hellboy II,” it’s difficult to not draw comparisons to past fantasy films, like “Labyrinth,” “The Neverending Story,” “Legend,” and “Return to Oz.” Like Henson and the others, del Toro roots his fantasy in the real and utilizes nature and elemental objects (trees, rocks, water, fire) to connect the impossible to the already existent. This makes del Toro especially equipped to handle the “Hellboy” franchise—the “Hellboy” world is entirely predicated on the fantastic and supernatural intruding on, interacting with, and existing in parallel to the everyday.
In “Hellboy II,” a disgruntled elfish prince, Nuada (Luke Goss), unhappy with the outcome of a long-ago war between his people and humankind, vows to reclaim the Earth by awakening the mythic Golden Army, a 4900-strong battalion of mechanical and indestructible death machines. Of course, goblins play a role in this, too: A goblin created the Golden Army, and there is a secret underground Troll Market hidden at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Naturally, it’s up to the rambunctious Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his crew from the US Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD)—including the amphibious Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), the fiery Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and newcomer-to-the-“Hellboy”-series Johann Strauss (voice of Seth MacFarlane), a wraith kept in a suit reminiscent of a century-old diving apparatus—to root out Nuada and prevent the awakening of the Golden Army.
We could spend the entire 110-minute running time picking out sight and creative references that del Toro is making to not only Henson but the entire pantheon of creature makers and fantasy storytellers that work in a similar vein. At the start of the film’s climax, for example, Hellboy, Abe, Liz, and Strauss are on a lush seaside cliff in Ireland looking for the hiding place of the Golden Army. Out of nowhere comes a goblin that looks like a flea-market centaur: his upper-half is old, withered goblin, but it’s connected to a lower half that is a rickety old cart filled with junk and clangy pots and pans. After being promised a soon-to-be useless trinket, he guides our heroes to the where the Golden Army is located by summoning a rock creature that doubles as an entryway to an underground lair. This is classic Henson, with the added benefit of 21st century whiz-bang.
The work of del Toro and his creature shop—which is essentially a series of notebooks the filmmaker uses to sketch and detail his creations—in “Hellboy II” ratchets up the series the obligatory couple levels. The film is firmly rooted in the established fantasy film tradition, as well as in the still-evolving del Toro filmography. And if “Hellboy II” were just about watching cool creatures run rampant in the movie theater for two hours, it would be a smash success. Unfortunately, there is also an action picture to be had here, and del Toro’s seeming inability to conceive, pace, and direct a sustained blow-‘em-up action movie is as prominent as his visionary creativity.
If we go back to “Blade II,” del Toro’s first big-budget foray into the action genre, we’ll notice eerie parallels between that sequel and this second “Hellboy” installment. There is a civil war raging in a human-hating species (in “Blade II,” it’s vampires; here it’s elves) that causes some members of that species to form an uneasy alliance with humankind. In both films, an errant son of the species’ leader, angry with Daddy, goes off the reservation to claim his place in the world by butting heads with the humans. (Interestingly, in both “Blade II” and “Hellboy II,” the whiny troublemaker is played by Luke Goss.) And also in both films, the off-the-rails son has a sister that sides with the humans (Nyssa (Leonor Varela) in “Blade II,” Nuala (Anna Walton) in “Hellboy II”) and ends up sacrificing herself to save humanity at the cost of the love of one of our heroes.
Certainly the plot skeletons of “Blade II” and “Hellboy II” are by no means unique, but it is interesting that in the two sequels del Toro has directed he has relied on the same plot to tell his story. This problem of story conception with “Hellboy II” can be easily overlooked—the images we’re given by del Toro utterly glue us to our seats for the entire movie. What can’t be, though, is how uneven the film is.
“Hellboy II” begins as this story about the balance of humans and nature, how humans have upset that balance, and how the radical aspects of nature are coming to reclaim their place on this planet. del Toro can be fairly blunt in this eco-message, but he never wraps it in the obvious: there are no massive super hurricanes or the coming of a new Ice Age or anything like that. Instead, we’re presented with fantastical creatures from the forest that stand in for natural disasters and who are raging at the sloppy way they and their homes have been treated and disregarded by mankind. If Mother Nature exists in “Hellboy II,” she would quite literally be a mother—and a really creepy looking one, at that.
Yet for as deft and inspired as this is, del Toro all but drops it after a loud set piece where Hellboy fights a giant killer beanstalk. After this scene, a different “Hellboy II” kicks in, one that’s meant to satisfy the unable-to-think fanboys who want nothing but stuff blowing up real good. Not only does this make what to then is an interesting action movie senseless, it shines a light on all of the film’s flaws. The worst of them is that what propels the movie forward—Nuada’s plot to revive the Golden Army—plays out as merely a reason to show elaborate and poorly-paced fight scenes, a shallow contrivance to keep throwing money on the screen, when it finally reaches its conclusion. I won’t reveal more than that so as not to be a spoiler, but just know that when a key piece of information is revealed we’re able to see the end of the movie hurling at us a mile away.
Action movies aren’t meant to be brain busters, that’s true. But Guillermo del Toro isn’t Michael Bay. And thank goodness. The cinema can’t afford to keep giving time, resources, and screen space to directors who think quality is measured by the glow of a CGI explosion. del Toro isn’t that type of filmmaker—he’s a talented creator that, when given the proper material, can do interesting and compelling work. He doesn’t brand us over the head in an attempt to make us confront relevant social issues (dictatorial governments in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for example, or Earth’s flailing environment in “Hellboy II”); we’re lulled into dealing with these issues by being presented with the fantastic (an underground creature that eats fairies, a dying race of elves hiding out in a troll market). But this approach only works when it’s carried through to the end of the film.
That doesn’t happen in “Hellboy II.” It’s a fine piece of creature creation, and a worthy entry into the pantheon of uneven fantasy-adventure films. When the credits roll, though, it’s still a very flawed work by a gifted storyteller unsteadily looking for a balance between his voice and some sort of dedication to the voice of Hellboy’s creator, Mike Mignola. The Guillermo del Toro who created “Pan’s Labyrinth” is exciting, vibrant, confident—everything that the filmmaker who shows up behind the lens on “Hellboy II” isn’t. The sooner del Toro retires the awkward Hollywood action director side of his creative persona, the sooner del Toro can grow into an elite filmmaker—and the sooner cinema can be the better for it.
Read this review at Fulvue Drive-In