Two miracles were too much to expect.
“Pan's Labyrinth,” one of the most satisfying fantasy movies of all time, made me eager to see if director Guillermo del Toro could match its psychological complexity, emotional depth and visual brilliance on his next go-round. But “Hellboy II” is just … “Hellboy,” too.
The film still dazzles us from end to end: del Toro has dreamed up another array of fabulous creatures, from tiny tooth fairies (which burrow into your body and go after the calcium in teeth and bones) to a towering Angel of Death with unblinking eyes in its vast wings.
Yet the parade of effects, crashes, fires and swordfights has no weight at all. Neither the prospect of Hellboy's death nor his potential separation from pyromaniac Liz nor his feelings of being unwanted awaken any response. When we see a clip of “The Bride of Frankenstein” on TV, with the creature lamenting his loneliness and outcast status, we realize del Toro is grasping at emotion-stirring straws.
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His script is a hodgepodge. Mythical creatures – trolls, elves, goblins, the usual – made peace long ago with humans, but some now feel mankind has despoiled the Earth and must be overthrown. Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to revive a buried army of indestructible soldiers (hence the full title: “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”), and he kills the royal father who tries to stop him. His twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), sides with the only humans likely to defeat him: the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.
The plot feels stale, hasty and halfhearted. Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) suddenly falls for Nuala; people in the streets first acclaim Hellboy (Ron Perlman) for saving them, then spit on him the next day – a mother turns on him after he obviously rescues her baby – and Liz (the excruciating Selma Blair) feels alienated from Hellboy for no good reason. When Nuada trots out the tired old Magneto argument – “you belong with fellow mutants, not the humans who hate you” – we know del Toro has run out of thematic inspiration.
He doesn't run out of money, however, which is why the film is never dull for long. He can afford to whip up a fearsome villain – a walrus-like behemoth with an iron fist that flies away to clobber victims and then shoots back to his arm on a chain – for no purpose other than to have Hellboy kill him. Del Toro's profligate imagination has finally been put in the care of effects wizards who can afford to make his every nightmare come true.
The final battle in the golden army's mountain is cleverly designed and handsomely executed, especially when del Toro gives free rein to his fascination with clockwork and machinery. (That's been a feature of his films since the underrated, Spanish-language “Cronos” 15 years ago.)
Fanboys won't mind the absence of depth or emotion; they may even welcome it for making the film more representative of its comic-book origins. The rest of us, however, cannot rejoice at the overspending and overkill likely to come in “Hellboy III,” which has now been prophesied in both “Hellboy” films.
“The humans?” sneers Nuada. “They will tire of you. They have already turned against you!”
No, not yet. But that may happen with the third one, unless del Toro pulls off another miracle.