FREAK SHOW

The Baltimore Sun

For those who want to celebrate All Saint's Day in July, Hellboy II: The Golden Army spills over with goblins, trolls and elves like a Halloween horn of plenty. Guillermo del Toro designs this follow-up to his 2004 Hellboy as a war between the magical and fearsome creatures who roamed J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis' Narnia and a handful of agents from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, including the burly red demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and the female human torch Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).

Del Toro stuffs the film with wit and wonderments. Yet, coming out this superhero summer, it plays like a lovingly crafted synthesis of every fantasy saga we've seen in the past decade.

How often can you watch a behemoth rumble up from beneath the asphalt and shred a street in a big city (in this case, again, New York)? It's bizarre to think such a sight could be a bit ho-hum. But it is, even if del Toro's antagonist turns out to be a towering, gorgeous forest god. In much of Hellboy II, a quiet denouement - such as an urban battlefield transformed into a poignant, beautiful garden - proves more arresting than the gargantuan conflict that precedes it.

Del Toro has been developing this sequel for five years. In the meantime, other filmmakers have created so many subterranean kingdoms and otherworldly alleyways and spectral armies that he's lost the quality of surprise. Luckily, he's some kind of visual genius. He arrests your eyes even when your mind wanders.

Like Kung Fu Panda (but in an alternately jocular and jugular vein), the movie's high point comes at the beginning. On a New Mexico military base in 1955 (you expect a crossover appearance from Indiana Jones), Hellboy's protector and mentor, Professor Broom (John Hurt), tells a bedtime story to the wide-eyed, scrappy little Hellboy (Montse Ribe), who still sports a full horn and a half on his head. (The adult Hellboy shaves them down.)

Broom reads to Hellboy from an antique leather-bound book about the ancient battles between humans bent on conquering the world (they have a hole in their heart filled with greed) and the magic forces led by the King of Elfland, Balor (Roy Dotrice). The tide turns when a goblin blacksmith creates a mechanical army "70 times 70 strong" that will follow Balor as long as he wears a goblin-designed crown (and as long as no one in his court challenges his authority). The "Golden Army" proves so horrific that Balor grounds it. He declares a truce that saves the forests for his kind and the cities for mankind, and breaks the crown into three pieces, handing one part to the humans.

"It's just a story, right, Pops?" asks Hellboy. Broom replies, "I'm sure you'll find out." Del Toro envisions the tale as the boy might see it, in an epic piece of puppet theater. Abstract, faceless forms act it out like marionettes without strings. Their simplicity is refreshing: The puppet-theater approach frees up your imagination. (Later, the onslaught of dazzling details shuts it down.) And this series' comedy of incongruity is never sharper than when Hellboy crawls under the covers like any Eisenhower-era tyke, sleeping with his toy six-shooter and waiting for Santa Claus.

If del Toro had stylized the rest of the film just as boldly, he might have made a fairy-tale masterpiece. Instead, it's a virtuoso special-effects blow-out with a few red-hot comedy bits. At the BPRD headquarters in Trenton, N.J., all is not well. The honeymoon is over for Hellboy and Liz, and he's more antagonistic than ever to the bureaucrat Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), who wants to keep the agency a secret (that's why they're in Trenton). With the BPRD in disarray, the third piece of the Golden Crown comes up for auction. Balor's son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who never agreed to the truce, heads into Manhattan to snatch the partial crown with the help of his troll, Mr. Wink (Brian Steele).

Del Toro imbues some early scenes with the off-the-cuff humor of Men in Black, especially a typical-day-in-the-office traveling shot that reveals every room in BPRD headquarters filled with diverse kinds of perturbed critters. When Hellboy succeeds in "outing" himself and the agency, the snippets of TV reporters and late-night comics ranks with Marvel Studios' satirical topicality: Jimmy Kimmel, as himself, quips, "Horns are never a good sign."

Best of all, a ticklish new character, the "protoplasmic mystic" Johann Krauss, is eerily omniscient and, thanks to Seth (Family Guy) MacFarlane's delightful vocal performance, hilariously genteel. Krauss considers himself an "Austrian gentleman." He rouses the jealousy of the beer-swilling, gun-toting, big-fisted Hellboy, even though Johann is nothing more than a mist in an elaborate, alien-looking spacesuit. They share a rollicking, ingenious fight in the BPRD locker room.

But as the film goes on, the spectacle swamps everything - and I do mean "swamps," because del Toro loves slithering species that look like they belong at the bottom of a bog. A crucial link joins Hellboy to Elfland's righteous King Balor: Each wishes to maintain personal honor and keep faith with humans, despite humanity's cruelty and fickleness. That connection often frays under the weight of all the computer-graphic imagery that del Toro piles on top of it.

Like Peter Jackson in King Kong, del Toro loses any sense of proportion. His most piquant inventions are petite phantasms with leaf-like wings and Venus fly-trap limbs; they look as adorable as baby pandas until they show their fangs. He calls them "tooth fairies" because they go for the teeth first when they treat the human body as a feast. The way they swarm is terrifying, but the creepiest and funniest scene comes when Johann inspects just one of them on an examining tray. It renders much of the mayhem superfluous.

I hope del Toro learns that the scenes everyone will talk about are the smaller and quieter ones, whether serious - such as Liz pleading for Hellboy's life with the Angel of Death - or uproarious - such as a drunken Hellboy singing a Barry Manilow song with a lovesick friend. And I hope I haven't underestimated this well-wrought spectacle merely because of its familiarity. After all, it isn't entirely del Toro's fault that Part II of Hellbo y too often plays like Superhero Part XXXXXXX.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army

(Universal Pictures) Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Rated P-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence and some language. Time 120 minutes.

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