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Hellboy II:
The Golden Army

At his best, Guillermo Del Toro creates dream worlds on screen. Nothing gets held back from his imagination, and it makes him a perfect interpreter of the comic book creator Mike Mignola, another artist who puts everything he likes into the mix and comes out with brilliance like The Amazing Screw-On Head and, of course, Hellboy.

Up the budget, and it gets even wilder. There are moments in Hellboy II: The Golden Army that perfectly capture a dream state, and Del Toro also makes use of a variety of techniques to communicate the very power of imagination.

The film opens with a bedtime story for the 11-year-old Hellboy. Ensconced in a Quonset hut on Christmas Eve and obsessed with Howdy Doody, the kid would pass as any red-blooded American boy, except for the skin, the horns and the piercing yellow eyes.

His "father" Professor Bruttelheim (John Hurt) reads to his adopted son from an arcane story book, and the tale of the Golden Army unfolds in the form of wooden puppets, just like the freckle-faced cowboy puppet Hellboy insists is real. Del Toro puts us right inside the demon child's head, and if you think the bedtime story is inappropriately dark, please again note that this is Hellboy.

When the faerie realm gets revisited in modern day, it's keenly designed and endlessly inventive. Lifting off from where Pan's Labyrinth left, Del Toro and his designers keep surprises waiting everywhere you look. The biggest surprise may be that a former boy band singer, Luke Goss, turns in a chilling yet sympathetic performance as the elven Prince Elri - er, Nuada.

For Del Toro, like many another director of the fantastic, has sympathy for his monsters. It's not just that this is nominally about a demonspawn who chooses to fight for humanity. The Golden Army expresses the concern that when we have lost our ability to wonder, perhaps the wondrous have a right to strike back and fight for their place.

So wondrous is that world, however, that it takes a while to adjust to the members of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Moving along from the events of the previous Hellboy film, Del Toro turns the BPRD into a sitcom, at first a harsh contrast to the stately melancholy that Prince Nuada's quest has.

It's a delicate balance, and one of the appeals of the Hellboy character -- again played by the only man who could, Ron Perlman - is that he wants so badly to be a normal joe. This time around, even the aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) develops a bit of that yearning, having shared insights with Nuada's luminous twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton).

Neither of them can quite see that the normal humans around them aren't that interesting. Several anonymous BPRD agents serve as cannon fodder in a battle against tooth fairies and other dark beasties, but Hellboy's main "normal" contact is the unctuous Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), more simpering bureaucrat than real man.

That theme gets a little heavy-handed when the ectoplasmic man Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane) steps in to assume command. Though MacFarlane actually tries to be subtle in his vocal characterization, the script just won't let him. Hellboy immediately makes the connection to Nazism, a few jokes get made at the expense of his accent, and he makes a character shift that serves the plot and theme, but not the actual character.

Still, this film plays more strongly than the first. It's easy to get swept along in the action, which Del Toro rarely lets flag. He's not quite as enamored of his creations this time around, which leaves us wanting more of them, of course, but also makes sure it's worth watching The Golden Army a second or third time to catch more.

The editing, by Bernat Vilaplana, has a bit of jerkiness to it, which could either be a problem or just adding to a vague unsettling feeling while watching. Then again, Hellboy himself is constantly vaguely unsettled.

You can see that reflected in Perlman's eyes. He's having fun, and he knows this is the role of a lifetime. So deeply does he sink into Hellboy that it's jarring seeing publicity photos of his normal face.

Another actor getting the chance of a lifetime is Jones, finally playing a major character fully. This time he gets to voice Abe Sapien, not just embody him. In addition, he plays a couple of other denizens of the supernatural world, underscoring his strange grace as an actor.

It all sweeps toward an inevitable Hellboy III, but not in an unsatisfying cliffhanger way. Clearly, Del Toro has planted seeds (of destruction) that he wants to see bear fruit, and The Golden Army makes a case that we should want to see them, too.

Derek McCaw

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