'Tis the season for tormented superheroes, and even without Peter Parker swinging around, there's been a bumper crop this year, between Iron Man, The Hulk, and Hancock. And we haven't even gotten to Batman yet. But can it get any better than Hellboy?
Certainly it won't get weirder than *Hellboy II: The Golden Army*, in which writer-director Guillermo del Toro (*Pan's Labyrinth*) opens up his abundant doodle-book imagination and unleashes an underworld teeming with strange, strangely cute, strangely winsome, spooky, and grotesque beings. The plot is faux *Lord of the Rings* piffle, involving an ancient war between humans and elves. The elves are ready to rise up again, under the leadership of evil, pasty-faced Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who is just plain tired of living underground (and under Manhattan, no less). He sets out to work on his tan and to revivify an army of thousands of indestructible golden warriors. But first, he needs all three pieces of an ancient golden crown, and, (as Hellboy himself might say), blah blah blah BLAH.
The Tolkienish plot serves as a reminder that del Toro's next project is *The Hobbit*, and if *Hellboy II* is any indication, he is more than up to the task. *Hellboy II* is the sequel to del Toro's equally funny, rousing, surprising, and devilishly good *Hellboy*. This time around, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the big, red, stogie-chomping, cat-loving demon spawn, is a bit of a celebrity, and relishes the spotlight. Like any modern celebrity, he learns that the public and the press are happy to turn on him, which they do. He's got bigger problems though -- Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), his incendiary ladylove, is mad at him (and when she's mad, she's on fire -- literally), and Prince Nuada keeps unleashing ferocious, carnivorous critters on the city. Hellboy's pal Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a fishy fellow, is even more blue than normal, as he pines for Prince Nuada's twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton). Hellboy's new boss at the super-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane), is a gasbag -- literally. He's a being of ectoplasmic gas, encased in a sort of diving suit that gives him human form and, apparently, an officious German accent and attitude.
Someone who isn't a windbag is the prodigious del Toro, who is a remarkably efficient storyteller, given how much plot and subplot he crams into the relatively compact 110 minutes of *Hellboy II*. More important than his efficiency is his attention to character, personality, and temperament, something every critter, no matter how small, inconsequential, or fierce seems to have in abundance in *Hellboy II*. Even a tumor growing out of a grotesque beast has personality. The movie, a busy, abundant (you could say overflowing) grab bag of special effects, imaginatively choreographed fight scenes (involving spears, mechanical fists, giant plants, babies...), and Barry Manilow singalongs is gleefully controlled chaos, a humorous, whimsical, touching, romantic, bloody-gooey noir-fantasy with the genuinely appealing, genuinely human Hellboy at its heart, keeping it real. Perlman invests Hellboy with the sort of cynical on the outside, soft on the inside, grouchy through and through attitude of an old-school, world-weary movie gumshoe -- he could just as easily be battling Nazis (which, as a matter of fact, he did in *Hellboy*) or hunting Maltese Falcons as fighting elves and giant trees.
There's a handful of filmmakers who can make a throwaway movie like this with all the care and purposefulness of an "important" movie. del Toro knows that *Hellboy II* (based on the graphic novels by Mike Mignola) is pulp, but it's extravagant, beautiful, joyful pulp, rendered with plentiful enthusiasm, pull-out-all-the-stops cleverness, true artistry, and a sense of humor.