In a summer filled with the brawn and brains and technology of the biggest studio comic movies in creation, count on Guillermo del Toro and his bag of monsters to supply the heart. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is oftentimes dark, laced with underlying chaos, and packed to the gills with creatures of all sorts. But it is as sweet and thoughtful as it is aggressive, and the realization of a decade-plus long dream of bringing Mike Mignola’s characters to the screen as they were meant to be seen. While this screen incarnation is certainly as much del Toro’s Hellboy as it is Mignola’s, no punches have been pulled and no sacrifices made in quite large an old school monster action movie. This Hellboy movie is so much more than any of us could have ever expected to come out in the middle of a crowded summer, released by a major studio, and with considerable marketing power behind it.

Though the first film is a terrific piece of entertainment, it seems like a small fry next to this sucker. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is huge and filled wall-to-wall with more imagination than any other film this year. It’s a rare throwback of a film, more at home with swashbuckling pulp of yesteryear than today’s cynical “product.” Movies where you wanted all the toys because they were cool and filled with unique creatures, not because they could fire a rocket from their day-glo chest plate.

As the film’s eloquent and stylistic introduction tells us, a pact was made between men and the mystical beings, one which prevented massive bloodshed and the reign of the unstoppable Golden Army, giant mechanized soldiers who act under the bidding of whomever is in possession of a magical crown. Having laid low in exile for untold years, the son of the King who made the truce has decided that mankind has encroached too far and has designs on using the army for his own purposes. As he begins his quest to gather the three pieces of the crown, he attracts the attention of the B.P.R.D., Hellboy’s outfit, and things go south in a hurry.

Before we meet the adult Hellboy, we meet the villain of the piece, the ruthless but compassionate Prince Nuada [Luke Goss]. He’s the secret weapon of the film, that rare heavy who you actually understand the plight of. There’s a fine line between where the Prince stands in his beliefs and where del Toro seems to. The loss of innocence and death of the mystical kingdom is a recurring theme in the filmmaker’s work, and though Nuada’s means are extreme there’s a very genuine and natural tact behind them. In many ways he represents the last link to Hellboy’s true kingdom of the arcane and supernatural and Hellboy II: The Golden Army is rife with moments where Hellboy has to figure out where he truly belongs. Protect the men and women who label him a freak or commit to his destiny as a ruler of monsters and catalyst to untold apocalypse? It’s not a new theme but Nuada and a great conduit for del Toro’s love of fairies and trolls and tentacles monstrosities. Nuada’s initial assault with the ferocious and adorable Tooth Fairies sets the tone for a darker and more playfully nasty movie and though there’s a parallel between the relationship between Nuada and his brute sidekick Mr. Wink [Brian Steele, once again doing amazing costume work] and the first film’s Rasputin and Sammael [Steele as well], there’s much more of a genuine bond between the second film’s lead villains. So good in fact, that I’d be content to watch a film just about Nuada and Wink and the many colorful creatures they interact with. Typically in big movies like this the villains are the most brightly painted and unique characters, almost to the point of being a distraction. In this film populated with rogues of all shapes and sizes, Nuada and Wink are the tip of the iceberg of adversaries for the B.P.R.D. but an amazing and genuinely realized foundation.

Of course, this movie is called Hellboy, though it’s very much an ensemble piece. We are re-introduced to the B.P.R.D. [Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, in case you didn’t know] through a fun walk-and-talk with the super intelligent fish man Abe Sapien [the amazing Doug Jones] and the stiff bureaucrat Tom Manning [Jeffrey Tambor] as the secret and monster infused world of Hellboy and his team is revealed through some fun and broad comedic moments involving agents and various beasts. It’s more mainstream stuff than hardcore Hellboy fans are used to but a perfect moment of levity to set the stage for the amazing array of oddities on the way.

And when Hellboy and his friends are brought into the picture everything locks into place and doesn’t let go until the end credits. Hellboy and Ape Sapien are a wonderful pair of leading characters in a movie like this and their uniqueness both physically and comedically allows a very smooth transition for an audience into whatever may lie ahead. Suspension of disbelief isn’t much of an issue when your leading characters are a giant red demon with shaved horns and a big gun and an amphibian empath with a professor’s vocabulary. When the straight man of the team is a tempermental girl who sets things on fire, all bets are pretty much off.

Hellboy is still a nuisance to the team here, ignoring rules and jeapordizing their cover at every turn and this story is very much about him maturing into his role in life, whatever it may be. The film’s early moments showcase the reckless spirit of the character and there’s something very special in how Ron Perlman mines every moment to perfection. Hellboy could have easily been a brute or simply a comic relief character but in Perlman’s hands he’s an everyman, albeit one with a high ceiling for success.

The film starts the action with a battle between the B.P.R.D. and the Tooth Fairies, and it’s a decent sequence though it feels more in sync with the first film than the rest of the action here. Agents with guns shooting tiny creatures isn’t what Hellboy is about, but it’s a good start and it’s nice to see when a film starts smaller and builds up with each set piece. The sequence sets up the conflict and when the film reaches the thirty minute mark or so it really hits its stride. Primarily when the ectoplasmic Johann Krauss [voiced to comedic perfection by Seth McFarlane] steps in to keep Hellboy in line. Krauss is a by the book character who is a nice bridge between the first film’s Broom [John Hurt, whose brief moments here lend a nice warmth] and Manning as Hellboy’s father/mentor figures. He’s the missing link in the team, a true leader but quirky enough to keep the vibe intact. The interaction between these characters is golden, and when they’re thrown into the many crazy situations the film offers, the Hellboy brand goes from being a niche thing to something that in a perfect world would garner the same adoration and fame as Men in Black and Ghostbusters but with a much more wicked edge.

Somehow this is both a very odd and fantastical movie and an unashamedly accessible mainstream bit of entertainment.

Rather than going into the details of the second and third acts, suffice it to say that the spectacle is in plentiful supply with the amazing Troll Market Sequence [I’ve seen the film three times now and have found new favorite weird creatures with each pass], the finale in Ireland [which packs enough amazing stuff to populate its own movie], and my personal favorite, the elemental attack. That scene with its gigantic tentacled beast is amazing enough but when paired with the astoundingly affecting result and the questions posed to Hellboy by the Prince regarding the balance of man and nature, it becomes something larger. When a section of Manhattan is overgrown with moss and pollen is raining down on the heroes, there’s something we rarely see in a summer movie that is touching and beautiful and real. The sense that something primordial and eternal is coming to a premature end is handled so well and seamlessly that it makes all of the surrounding moments that much more effective.

That is the brilliance of this filmmaker and a testimony to the quality and versatility of Mike Mignola’s characters and stories. The divergence from the comic books is quite vast, but the differences give the films [particularly this one] their own life and I’ve grown the point where I don’t know which incarnation I love more, the screen or page incarnations.

It’s a rollicking good time, eloquent and graceful when it needs to be and lunkheaded and boorish when it needs to be. The Guillermo del Toro of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth has finally been given free reign in the world of studio filmmaking and it is a beautiful thing. There’s something for everyone here.

The first film was released by Sony Revolution, and the studio chose not to pull the trigger on the sequel even though the rest of the world was realizing the genius of Guillermo del Toro on the heels of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s amazing run. It’s fortuitious they chose not to make the film. Universal is a much more suitable home for Hellboy, what with its pageantry of classic monsters, some of whom are referenced here. That logo, that history of gleefully joyous bits of monster mayhem. It just feels right because this film, its cuddly director, and its crimson hero are all throwbacks to that era of wild imagination and deliciously warped monsters.

And lots of punching. Lots of punching is good.

The geeks have most certainly won.

Pros: Untapped imagination. Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and Johann Krauss are delightful. Amazing monsters. Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro uncorked and kicking ass. Ron Perlman in the role of his career doing what he does best. Phenomenal storytelling.

Cons: Young Hellboy doesn’t come off 100% successful. Liz Sherman’s fire effect not up to par with the rest of the effects. One too many overly sentimental moments. Elfman’s score doesn’t grab as much as it could have. Aside from the showpiece song, the pop music in the film is jarring.

Overall: 9.2 out of 10.