What if the monsters are right?

Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to explore an issue like that in a summer blockbuster superhero movie. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a dizzying leap from the first film, a real benchmark in del Toro’s evolution as a filmmaker. Marrying the director’s fascination with certain themes, his unique personal vision and slam-bang comic book action, Hellboy II feels like nothing less than the successor to Pan’s Labyrinth… dressed in spandex. There’s been a perception that del Toro was engaged in one-for-them one-for-him filmmaking, where his personal movies come out in between more commercial films. Hellboy II obliterates that concept by those seemingly disparate careers together.

Hellboy II finds Red and Liz living together in not quite harmony; he’s a slob and more than a little inconsiderate, and while she truly loves him, she’s not sure how much more she can take. On top of that Hellboy has been itching for a change – he’s tired of living in the shadows, part of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), a secret government organization. He wants to be in the spotlight, part of the world. When a group of calcium-devouring Tooth Fairies attack an auction house in Downtown Manhattan he uses the opportunity to reveal himself to the public, an event that causes the government to send a new leader to the team – Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic German whose smoke-like self is contained in what looks like an old fashioned diving suit. He’s by the book, while Hellboy has possibly never read one – conflict is inevitable.

The conflict also comes from the outside. The Tooth Fairy attack was the opening salvo in a war against humanity; Prince Nuada, elven son of the King of the House of Bethmora, has grown weary of humanity’s encroachment on his world and rebels against his father in an effort to find the three pieces of a golden crown needed to activate the titular Golden Army, a fierce, unstoppable and vast army of clockwork automatons who once pounded humanity into submission, long before recorded history. His sister, Princess Nuala, has the third and final piece of the crown, and when she takes refuge with the BPRD she awakens strange feelings in the team’s resident brain and fishman, Abe Sapien.

Hellboy II is a major risk for Universal – the film cost more than the first movie made, and while the Sony-released original found a new life on DVD, there has to be some question whether there’s an audience for this movie at all. Taking that into consideration, Guillermo del Toro has constructed a sequel that’s easy to enter; newcomers (or those not remembering the original all that well) should have no problem keeping up with the characters and situations. But this is a sequel, and as is the superhero cliche, the second film allows for more exploration of the characters. While newbies will have no problem jumping right into the strange world of the BPRD, returning fans will find that del Toro isn’t treading the same ground from the first film and has, instead, moved forward in every possible way.

He’s moved forward in so many ways that this doesn’t feel so much like a sequel to the first film as the first film feels like a prologue to this movie. I’m not a huge fan of the first Hellboy; while it’s well-made and fun, something about it never quite grabbed me. What’s more, I never felt like it was entirely Guillermo del Toro’s film. He was channeling Mike Mignola’s vision and putting his own spin on it, but it nonetheless felt like Mignola’s vision. With Hellboy II GdT has taken the ball that Mignola passed to him and is running with it – every bit of this movie feels like a del Toro film, from character design to themes to settings. The Tooth Fairies look like biological cousins to what we saw in Pan’s Labyrinth, while the magnificent and defining Troll Market sequence contains dozens of beasts that could only have sprung from the mind of del Toro.

The Troll Market sequence is worth talking about all on its own – it’s ground zero for a new generation of monster-obsessed kids. It’s the Cantina scene from the original Star Wars filtered through the imagination of del Toro. While searching for clues about the origins of the Tooth Fairies, Hellboy and friends descend into a massive subterranean world where all of the beasts, beings and boogeymen go to do their shopping. A scene works remarkably well when the main criticism of it is that it’s too short; I could have spent much longer luxuriating in the parade of strange that del Toro has whipped up. Possibly the most satisfying thing about the scene (and about the movie in general) is how much of it is practical – these beasts aren’t pixels but people in suits, and the physicality of them pays off.

While the Troll Market might be the film’s signature moment, Hellboy II is packed with action set pieces, each rolling from each other with ease. Too many films throw action scene after action scene at us, without worrying about how they’re paced or even how they fit into the story – in Hellboy II the action scenes grow from the story and even advance thematic elements. Hellboy’s visit to the Troll Market shows him another side of reality, one where he’s not a freak or a monster but where he belongs. His battle in the market with the impressive (and again, practical) troll Wink leads to Prince Nuada looking for vengeance; Nuada immediately unleashes a plant elemental on New York City and Hellboy has to decide whether or not to destroy this giant being, the last of the old forest gods. The pacing of Hellboy II had been a little lurching at the beginning, but from this point on all the gears catch and everything falls into place – the plant elemental isn’t the only giant rampaging monster we’ve felt bad for in movies, but there’s something unique in the way del Toro handles it – maybe it’s the way that the elemental’s blood causes the streets of New York to suddenly bloom with green life; beauty and horror exist comfortably side by side in del Toro’s world.

There are two big changes in the main BPRD line-up this time around: David Hyde Pierce does not return as the voice of Abe Sapien, being replaced by Doug Jones, the guy who is actually in the suit. You’ll only notice the change if you’re looking for it, and I mean that as a major compliment to Jones, who keeps the continuity of the character’s sound while making Abe completely his own this outing. The other big change is the addition of Johann Krauss, a character who almost made me eat my words. When it was announced that The Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane was voicing Johann, I cringed but (wisely, in retrospect) opted not to run a piece bitching about it, trusting Guillermo’s instincts. And he was right, of course – McFarlane is amazing, and Krauss is the break-out character of the summer. He adds just the right element of humor to the team dynamic and is the perfect foil for Hellboy. I fell in love with Krauss in the movie and want to see a second sequel if only for more of him.

I’ve seen Hellboy II twice now; my first viewing was with only about 20-30% finished CGI effects while my second was the completed feature. What was amazing the first time through was that the movie wasn’t impacted by all the missing FX – this is a story about characters first and foremost, and they’re brought to such meaningful life by the actors, whether they be working in suits or, in the case of Selma Blair, the amazing, gorgeous form the Good Lord Himself gave her. Of course the second viewing was richer – the Golden Army itself was just hinted at in the CGI-free version while the finished movie presents them in their full, menacing glory in a terrific battle at the end. But the movie’s heart isn’t the rousing action (of which there is plenty), but the people at the center. Del Toro breaks the rules by making us wonder if the monsters may be right, but he doesn’t stop there – he takes these characters and makes them real in ways most blockbusters wouldn’t imagine. When offered a choice between saving the world and saving the life of a loved one, the answer seems obvious… in a movie. But del Toro doesn’t look at these characters as being in a movie, he looks at them as people. And imagine yourself in that position, choosing whether to save the Earth or save the person you love most in the world.

So, are the monsters right? I think it’s easy to see that Guillermo’s sympathies lie with them. Prince Nuada complains about humans taking their territory – an ancient truce gave the elves and fairies and goblins and their ilk the forests, while man got the cities – and putting shopping malls and parking lots there; while I think Guillermo laments the loss of nature to these monstrosities, what he’s really talking about is another piece of real estate: our imaginations. As one of the fantastical folk says to Hellboy, ‘We die, and the world is a poorer place.’  Guillermo del Toro has thrown his allegiance down with the things that go bump in the night, and he’s doing everything in his power to keep them alive another day.

8.5 out of 10