Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) review


Prince Nuada: "The world will be a poorer place when we are gone."

The above quote from the screenplay of Hellboy II: The Golden Army could have come from the pen of Jorge Luis Borges, the famed 20th century Argentinian writer. Guillermo del Toro's newest film is a fantastical genre treat of a similar kind: a massive visual feast of epic scale that's well written and has a very interesting story to tell of the eternal archetypes.

There aren't many films made like this today, coupling the new technology of computer graphics with the old school approach of sets, makeup, an imaginative look, and an actual storyline. A great script helps, and the Mexican Del Toro is a real force to be reckoned with in this area.


Once again, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and Del Toro have teamed up for an altogether new--and uproariously funny--movie that's bound to please the most discriminating fan of action hero comics, and lovers of high art in cinema. Characters are the real focus, even with the rapid-fire action and the lavish visuals.

As in his recent "Pan's Labyrinth," and his other films, Del Toro's love for pagan imagery and its mythos is on display, and there are echoes of almost the entire history of the fantastique in cinema: from Georges Melies, to Luis Feuilliade, to Federico Fellini, to Terry Gilliam, and more. Careful attention is given to composition that expresses the emotional and narrative tone of the story, a rarity in movies these days. But it's all just so much fun, a real genre treat that other directors should aspire to, and while audiences don't know all the terminology of cinematic language, they understand it and enjoy it when it soars. That's exactly what it does in the hands of Guillermo del Toro.

The film begins with an impressive prologue on the ancient wars between humanity and the elven race, done very closely to the style of Brothers Quay, but with a budget they've never known. The elven king created a golden army of magical robots that were unstoppable, and could only controlled with a crown made in three-parts.

We find out that a truce between humanity and the elves was eventually struck, and that the golden army was shelved down in the underworld, and that parts of the crown were split between the parties. Only through the uniting of the parts of the crown will awaken the golden army, and it must be done by an elven monarch. An underlying theme of the film is a war between the magical world and the world of humanity, but it could also be seen as imagination versus a "rational," scientific and materialistic reality.

"Imagination" is embodied in the character of the elven prince Nuada, who seeks to awaken the golden army to annihilate humanity. Part of his motive is to save the magical underworld, and nature itself. It's not an especially evil motive, and makes for a very potent parable on our times, but audiences don't necessarily have to read it on that level to enjoy it. Even Hellboy seems torn at times when battling his so-called enemy, making for a very refreshing story where there are mostly shades of gray, rather than the usual "good guys vs. the bad guys."

The prologue makes a good case that there's a hole in the spirit of humanity that always needs to be filled, that it's something innate to us, and that we are a deficient species. Looking at the world today, it's a theme that resonates very strongly in light of ecological devastation, widespread alienation, emptiness, and a general spiritual malaise--particularly embodied by America, but not exclusive to it.

These themes get aired very openly by the characters, and it's very hard to disagree with the elves on this count. We lost something when we moved away from our pagan roots, and with the advent of technology and industrialization. Eden couldn't be much farther away, and we are a race of assassins in many respects. But we have our good sides, and we are a part of nature, especially in our dreams. The creatures in Hellboy II are aspects of ourselves, of humanity.

We see "tooth faeries," a cat-eating troll disguised as an old homeless woman in one of the film's funniest scenes, a pagan vegetation god, and a lot of other bizarre creatures that beggar description--that's what art and the movies are for. Del Toro's ability to create a believable world is so effective that the experience is an immersive one. Even as ridiculous as it all seems, it's hard not to accept it as a genuine world of its own. And once again, Ron Perlman is absolutely convincing and hilarious as Hellboy, with his sidekicks catching-up to him.

Mignola and Del Toro have added a German "Dr. Krauss," an ectoplasmic entity that walks around in a ridiculous body-suit, spouting some really funny one-liners. He could almost be Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. In the hands of most directors, Krauss would be one-dimensional. However, there are some very good scenes of physical humor between the Krauss character and Hellboy that would do Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges proud.

The film sports a theme of love that gets a good wink and a nod for laughs while being serious. Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" is trotted-out with spectacular comic effect in a number of key scenes, with a very funny reprise. And yet, there's a sadness to the movie in number of areas, particularly with Hellboy's destruction of the vegetation god in a battle next to Brooklyn Bridge (wanna buy it from me?). There's a lot of slime and glop in "The Golden Army"--Del Toro has topped himself here, including the first Hellboy film.

Yes, nature and imagination have their destructive side, but they're essential to the survival of humanity. Whether they need us to continue is the real question. The irony is, that they survive through Hellboy, the one still fated to annihilate the human race and purify the planet by film's end. Expect another chapter in one of the more satisfying genre sagas going, but we're probably going to have to wait until Del Toro has finished the next two Hobbit films in New Zealand. This is hands-down, the must-see movie of the summer.