Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron have recently been celebrated as a powerhouse of Mexican filmmaking. It would be hard to avoid noticing these three friends created Pan's Labyrinth, Babel and Children of Men in the same year. Del Toro’s Labyrinth was one of my favorite films of 2007 and the first Hellboy is an underappreciated joy.
So, the next sentence is hard for me to say. Hellboy II is disappointing. Even worse is that it’s disappointing in a way that reminds you that del Toro can be brilliant.
Let’s start with the good, though. As in the first film, our story centers on Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the son of the devil raised by humans who now works for a paranormal division of the FBI. The pre-credits sequence recounts the story of the Golden Army. The history is told via puppet theater, a nice visual touch that sets us up for a creative storytelling experience.
Thus, we are introduced to Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) and Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), elf twins, still alive in the present day. The prince feels the truce has been betrayed as humans have encroached on the forests where the elves live. The princess is of a more forgiving bent.
It’s obvious that the bulk of the filmmaking effort went into monster design and visuals in general. The creatures are never boring, if sometimes reminiscent of some of what we saw in Pan’s Labyrinth. Our protagonists’ visit to a Troll Market is a happy excuse for approximately then SWCs (Star Wars cantinas) worth of fable-land creatures.
Which leads to one of the great set pieces of the movie: the Elemental, a tree god that Nuada sets on Hellboy. It is a giant tree/ flower beast that is the last of its kind. Del Toro does not let us forget that, despite the danger it presents, it is both beautiful and unique. Hellboy fights the Elemental with a sincere regret; it’s a nice moment that gives us some depth to both Hellboy and Nuada, made more complex by the juxtaposition of the metal and glass of the city with the organic form of the tree god.
But Navin, you would say if you were feeding me a cheap segue, you said you were disappointed? So far, you’ve had nothing but praise for this film. You’ll note I have mentioned almost nothing about the dialogue, characterization, music and plot.
Because, for every moment where the characters say interesting things about the failure of magic in the world we get three "wacky" moments like Hellboy and Abe drunkenly singing "I Can’t Smile Without You," or a sitcom cliche plot by Liz Sherman (a bored and flat Selma Blair).
Add onto that the odd, overly on-the-nose choices of music ("Beautiful Freak" by the Eels?) and I could barely suppress my groans.
The characterization of pretty much everyone is haphazard, especially that of the machine/ gas Johann Krauss (voiced by the inexplicably over-praised Seth MacFarlane), who can take control of inanimate objects.
Obviously, a person who can telepathically control machines should be at the big fight with the titular army of machines. That’s clear from the first frame of Krauss’s appearance. His every line and every action goes against his being there, but he makes a 180-degree turn at the appropriate moment with no discernable motivation, to meet the author’s need.
I will avoid mentioning the plot hole regarding Abe’s choices at the climax except to say that it is huge and unforgivable.
Then del Toro does his thing and follows up the climactic fight sequence with a bit of interesting, thematic dialogue, if of the overlong-death-throes kind, and I just wanted to yell, “THIS! MORE OF THIS!” at the screen. Which gets to the fundamental problem with Hellboy II: its excellent moments just can’t outweigh its bad ones.