While a number of critics are positioning Hellboy II: The Golden Army in relation to director Guillermo del Toro's forthcoming venture into Middle-earth, the film sits more comfortably as a companion piece to the director's last film, Pan's Labyrinth. The 2006 Oscar-winner was not just formally beautiful, but resonated with deeply realized themes of spirituality and the necessity of storytelling. Structurally and aesthetically, del Toro rendered two worlds—fascist Spain and a magical fairy world—that couldn't thrive, grow, or exist without the other. He carefully denied the viewer the pleasure of escaping into myth or narrative, while also establishing a disjointed “reality,” with persistent intrusions of the fantastic. This was precisely his purpose: to illustrate that these two worlds are mutually constitutive and inseparable from one another.
By contrast, Hellboy II more outwardly revels in its fantasy. It serves up a delicious menu of goblins, trolls, armies, and angels of death, all brought to life with unparalleled vision. But even though del Toro is steadfastly focused on populating his world (which he established in Hellboy II's 2004 predecessor) with as many odd creatures as his mind can dream up, evident also in the film's swirling compositions of color and movement is the same commitment to narrative that ran through Pan's Labyrinth. You may not be overwhelmed by the thinly drawn Shakespearean character dynamics or the predictably action-heavy denouement, but this movie is about the moments in between—the simple, seamless unfolding of narrative energy.
The film begins similarly to Pan's Labyrinth, with Professor Broom (John Hurt) reading to young Hellboy about a long ago world (visualized in silhouettes and weightless figures) filled with elves, trolls, and monsters whose tense relationship with humans tees up both the backstory and the conflict for the film. The fairy tale creatures and humans settled their differences with a truce that would ensure that humans remain in cities, while elves and other like creatures dwell in the forests. But humans would eventually falter on their end of the deal, compelling Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) to return from exile to seize control of the Golden Army. Cut to present-day New York where Nuada and his ill-tempered brute of a minion, Mr. Wink, begin their crusade to reclaim the King's crown and wage war on humankind.
These opening sequences have a sense of mystery and fear about them that, unfortunately, isn't sustained throughout the film. Here we are granted a glimpse into del Toro's twisted imagination. His first batch of goodies: Tooth fairies. “It's kind of cute, actually,” one of the expendable BPRD agents [that's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, in case you're wondering] notes before being devoured alive by a swarm of these creatures. But this is just overture to the symphony of weird slimy beasts Hellboy II will introduce. These visions are interspersed throughout the expository first hour of the film, in which del Toro finely balances character, story set-up, and weird distractions. At Headquarters, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), now living together, bicker constantly, while “fishstick” Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) tries to mediate. Meanwhile, Agent Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is still trying to keep Hellboy out of public sight, despite the big red guy's craving for attention and, more importantly, acceptance from the people he protects. These scenes are mostly light, sometimes funny, and almost completely dependent on one having seen the first film, which is somewhat refreshing, actually. Del Toro intercuts these (re)introductions with Prince Nuada's conquest to bring the human world to an end, fiercely cutting down anyone standing in his way. The contrast will undoubtedly not work for some, but these scenes economically establish different tones, tensions, and characters that will eventually collide.
Although the film depicts surprisingly few humans, del Toro frames humans as a central element in the conflict between Hellboy and Prince Nuada, with one bent on the destruction of humanity and the other on saving it. (Guess which.) This is all standard comic book stuff, for sure, but the film occasionally, even subtly hints at the disturbing truth that humanity not only cannot be saved, but doesn't want to be saved. Despite his desire, Hellboy feels little connection to those who he protects; he does not swing through crowded streets and pose in front of the American flag like Spiderman, or hold up falling buildings with a smile on his face like Superman. He does put his life on the line for the occasional kitten, though. And the acceptance he craves from the people he works to protect is short-lived, until he discovers that he is not so different from the villains he routinely wards off from destroying the world.
These themes coalesce midway through the film's second act, beginning with a giant plant rampaging through the streets of Brooklyn and ending with an unexpectedly hard affective punch. “It's the last of its kind,” Nuada tells Hellboy as the plant dies before him, a tragically beautiful interlude wherein, for the first time in his life, Hellboy becomes aware of the implications of his choices and his responsibility. He learns, much to his surprise, that there are sides to himself that he was previously unaware of, the kinds of ambiguous shadings that del Toro explored in Pan's Labyrinth. As the plant shrivels up and sprouts constellations of flowers and white petals, Hellboy realizes that his place among nature and humanity is more complicated than he knows. This scene is the emotional core of the movie and del Toro handles it with a delicate lyricism that is rarely seen in studio cinema. A.O. Scott observed that it has an aura similar to that of a Hayao Miyazaki film, which I take to mean that it locates the sublime in the most intangible, yet profoundly simple images.
The film comes down somewhat after this sequence, never recapturing the same sense of magic. Ultimately, the personal conflicts of the latter half of Hellboy II don't exude the same energy, nor do they possess the same rhythm that assisted in establishing the film's more abstract ideas and direct sensations. One could say that Hellboy II misses out on its opportunity to mold Luke Goss' character into a villain for the ages, especially after the strong opening. Nevertheless, the performances are all excellent, and del Toro still has a few icky creatures up his sleeve near the end—most notably an opportunistic little goblin dragging a wheelbarrow behind him and a creepy angel of death whose many eyes gaze upon Hellboy and Liz from its wings. While the plotline of Liz's hesitancy to tell Hellboy that he is to be a father resonates effectively enough, the sense of focus begins to wane on Nuada's plotline. It doesn't help that there are a variety of other subplots that must come together, including another love thread; this one involving Abe. The sense of urgency is also not present in the latter half, and what little of it that there is feels artificial.
While these aspects might seem to detract from the film, Hellboy II's aesthetic wonders put me in too joyous a state to be all that dissatisfied. The film's highlights aren't limited to the incredible creature design, but extend to its every frame and movement. Del Toro has a unique ability to create a sense of space, both in the larger notion of the film's “world,” and in its many locales. He manages the economy of each shot, conveying necessary story and character details while also creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and he does this in the most subtle of ways. He assembles such a vivid palette of colors, smoke, and structures, which is most evident in the early troll market sequence. Here del Toro exhibits his penchant for dreaming up fantastic characters, but he also shows off his utter mastery with the camera. Moving up and down the crowded streets, through the smoke and shadow, all the while immersed in an orgy of color, his camera (aided by the stunning cinematography by Guillermo Navarro) makes sense of it all economically and whimsically. It's an absurdist's dream that brings together the imaginative capacity of Terry Gilliam and the formal precision of Alfred Hitchcock.
The troll market sequence doesn't necessarily represent Hellboy II's narrative stretch or thematic depth (or lack thereof), but it does define the film, as well as the skill and passion of its creator. In Guillermo del Toro's worldview, storytelling is not about structure, cohesion, or resolution, but about the experience of being in a world, a place, a mind, and feeling it from the inside out. It's essentially about sensation and encountering magic in the everyday world, where such things are often thought to have no place. Del Toro believes that storytelling is worth fighting for simply because it is the defining element of humanity. We may draw distinctions between reality and fantasy, but del Toro wants to shatter that divide and revel in the pure experience and immediacy of narrative.
The elements of his narrative in Hellboy II may not be real, or even deep for that matter, but del Toro allows them to fill the screen and the imagination, reminding that the fantasy can become real as much as the real can become fantasy. They bleed into each other and inform one another. It is in this connection that del Toro's envisioning of spirituality resides. His sensibilities toward the spiritual come through not in the narrative itself, but in his conviction in storytelling and locating the sublime in the strange. Stories are almost always born out of the same elements, but the ways in which those elements are given life are infinite. In short, Guillermo del Toro's movies represent an exploration of the possibilities of narrative and the imagination, where visions both dark and hopeful will flourish, simply, by the telling of a tale.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.