Pan’s Labyrinth proved that Spanish director Guillermo del Toro has an unrivaled gift for dreaming up beautifully bizarre worlds and bringing them to life. His new movie offers proof to admirers of that film that he also has a sense of humor.
A follow-up to his 2004 monster hit, Hellboy II: The Golden Army may be the most visually inventive, richly imagined popcorn movie ever made. Had any other director lent his or her talents to adapting this source material, the result would almost certainly have been just another comic-book superhero throwaway. Working with series creator Mike Mignola, del Toro may not have raised the material to the level of art, but he does fashion it into a feast for the eyes that offers some of the season’s freakiest film fun.
Ron Perlman is back as the cigar-puffing, kitten-loving agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Having missed the original, I only recognized while watching the sequel what a debt Hancock owes to Mignola and del Toro. Like Will Smith’s character in that picture, Perlman’s is a crime fighter who has serious PR problems and a fondness for booze. Like Hancock’s, Hellboy’s public has mixed feelings about him, in this case no doubt stemming from the fact that he’s huge, red, equipped with a tail and, you know, a devil.
He has other problems, too. On the home front, his girlfriend and colleague Liz (Selma Blair), who bursts into flame when upset, is bursting into flame a lot. Their relationship has hit a rough patch. On the saving-the-world front, there’s the matter of an elf prince (Luke Goss) who looks like Johnny Winter and wants to rid the Earth of humankind by waking a dormant army of giant robot warriors. All he needs to do is locate the missing piece of a magic crown, and the power will be his.
And that’s pretty much the story: Hellboy, Liz and a pair of supernatural sidekicks make it their mission to prevent the prince from finding that missing piece. Del Toro both wrote and directed, and it’s clear he channeled most of his energies into the latter role. The slightness — and silliness — of the narrative are greatly compensated by the visual marvels the filmmaker conjures.
This is a big dumb summer movie, and del Toro knows it. He’s not out to create great cinema here; he’s out to have a good time with the millions at his disposal, and what floats his boat more than anything is filling the screen with fanciful life forms and wondrously strange worlds. The George Lucas of his generation, he’s like a kid in an eye-candy store.
Among the movie’s several masterstrokes: the Troll Market, a subterranean bazaar bustling with uncountable weird creatures (obviously inspired by the famous saloon scene in Star Wars, but trippier by far); a skyscraper-sized beanstalk monster that attacks Manhattan; a swarm of razor-fanged “tooth fairies” that rips into art collectors at an auction house about to take bids on the magic crown; a mountain of an alien thug named Mr. Wink — and, let us not forget, the Angel of Death brought to glorious CGI life.
Certain aspects of the picture are somewhat less inspired. Hellboy’s a grumpy hoot, but his fish-headed sidekick, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), is an often-tiresome C-3PO clone. The evil prince is disappointingly ho-hum for a dude who’s this close to world domination. The great Jeffrey Tambor is squandered in the role of a high-ranking Bureau official. And, while many of the director’s walking, talking concoctions are thrillingly original, a surprising number prove minor variations on Pan’s unforgettable Pale Man.
And then there’s the Golden Army. Row after computer-generated row of identical marching machines. Do we really need Guillermo del Toro for a spectacle of this caliber? Movies like The Mummy have been serving up this sort of thing for years.
While thin on story and a bit uneven, the filmmaker’s latest finds him at his most creatively playful, and that’s good news for viewers who take their celluloid with a dash of psychedelia. You may see a funnier or more exciting movie this summer, but it’s doubtful you’ll run into one that’s further out there. It may not be all it might have been, but this is one army you won’t regret joining.