The most important thing to know going into HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is that the chances are excellent that you will leave the theater humming Barry Manilow. Barry Manilow at his treacly, pop music-est.
The next most important thing to know is that this outing, though Hellboy creator Mike Mignola gets a co-story credit, is strictly the brainchild of screenwriter/director, Guillermo del Toro and he has put his stamp firmly on every frame of film. He and the film are mischievous, with a puckish sense of humor that pervades even the most disturbing of images and there are those aplenty here, starting with his version of the tooth fairy, which is nothing like the one that leaves money under a pillow in exchange for a baby tooth. These are ghostly white, spindly and scuttering like so many bits of dandelion set free by the wind, they are also, when aroused, all teeth and ravenous appetite. Nor do they leave money in exchange for human teeth as make a beeline for same right through the living flesh and bone of the owner. The dichotomy is richly evocative, as is everything else in del Toro’s landscape. Bosch paintings come to life, the iconic Venus of Willendorf takes on even more prodigious proportions, and landscapes do the impossible. It’s the tension of that dichotomy that gets under the skin in a way that mere creepiness can’t. It’s also present in Hellboy (Ron Perlman) himself, a snarky red-skinned, prehensile-tailed, horn-sprouting demon who sides with the good guys. He’s just a lug who enjoys knocking back a few beers, smoking a Cuban cigar, and shooting his very, very big gun like any other kitty cat-loving good old boy (dare I say redneck?). Alas, he’s reviled by the regular folks he’s trying to save, which gets to the big guy, especially when he’s just rescued a baby from a plant with a bad attitude. That sequence is where del Toro gets to the heart of Hellboy’s struggle. There he is, clinging to the side of a building, while the multistory vine is turning the surrounding cityscape into rubble. The king of the elves, the one who summoned the creature, sits next to Hellboy and asks him why he would serve those who hate him when he could be a king in the real of magical creatures. That one question sums up the real story here.
The rest is a confection in which humans don’t fare much better, image-wise. The set-up is presented in a lovely bit of puppet animation as a flashback Yuletide bedtime story told to a kid Hellboy by his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt reprising the role). Having torn the boy from his favorite television show, he spins the legend of Ur-time, when humans and elves fought a war involving the eponymous golden army, mechanical soldiers who almost succeeded in wiping humans from the face of the earth. The elf king, disgusted by the destruction struck a truce, and divided his crown, the key to controlling the army, into three pieces. That was then, this is now, and the new elf king (Luke Goss) decides that humans haven’t done such a good job of running things so much as running them into the ground and proceeds to reunite the three pieces of the crown and set the world to rights, which is to say, sans humanity. And it’s up to Hellboy and company to stop him.
The weakest part of the film are the returning characters. They don’t have a big new arc to traverse here and are doing an emotional retread of their last outing, with the exception of Abe (Doug Jones), the fastidious, refined and semi-psychic braniac in the form of a bluish man-fish. He is gobsmacked by the elf princess (Anna Walton) of the story, perhaps because elfin eyes have the same sort of coldness that fish eyes do, even with the tinted contacts he sports at one point to impress her. Species-wise, this may be more of a stretch than Hellboy and Liz, but soul-mate wise, they are ideal. Jones, beneath a fish mask and using only a preternatural sinuousness of body to express feelings nonetheless evokes a longing lovesickness in Abe that is sweet and tender and corny in all the right ways. You can’t help but want Abe to win the girl’s heart, even if you’re not quite sure what he would do with the rest of her afterwards.
As for Liz and Hellboy, the strange creature from another dimension and the firestarter have officially become a couple, though that doesn’t mean their relationship is any easier. He doesn’t pick up his clothes, she bursts into flames when ticked off about it. Their equally antagonistic relationship with Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), the antacid-popping, fluttering bureaucrat running the Bureau for Research and Paranormal Defense, hasn’t improved, either. Things get worse when new team leader is brought in, the ectoplasmic Johann Krauss, an egoist who sports an outfit not entirely like a deep-sea diving suit replete with fussy little fiddly bits where the mouth would go if Dr. Krauss had on. Hellboy doesn’t care for his sense of self-satisfaction, nor has he warmed to the idea of Germans, what with Nazis having figured, and not nicely, into his backstory. There are plenty of opportunities for Hellboy’s signature cri de Coeur “Oh crap” delivered sotto voice when things go wrong, usually when he’s let his temper get the best of him.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is full of tableaux that are fantastic in the most classic sense. It’s a visual feast that offers a dazzling array of ingenious touches large and small at every turn. Crazy cat ladies who are really trolls. Faces are not necessarily composed of eyes, nose, and mouth in a familiar arrangement. And that tiny little jumping bean that looks so cute, it’s actually a very big problem waiting to happen. More, del Toro has crafted a film of richly complex themes overlaid with a frothy plot, each serving to disarm the audience while holding it rapt.