Director Guillermo del Toro delivers a gorgeous alternate reality for Hellboy II, but the story sometimes suffers for the sake of visual effects.
Hellboy II begins with a few sentences and still photos of backstory for Hellboy himself, explaining that he was rescued from Nazis as a young child during World War II and raised as a human despite his horns, tail, and giant stone right hand. His pedigree as Anung Un Rama, a prince of the underworld, surfaces briefly later in the film. The backstory for the movie is presented as a childhood bedtime story, with accompanying fanciful visual effects: a war between Elfkind and Humankind ended with a truce that left an indestructible Golden Army dormant until called upon by a member of royalty bearing all three pieces of a golden crown. Of course, an elf prince is unhappy with the arrangement, and the present-day action begins with his return from exile to collect the three pieces of the crown.
Much of the film rests on the relationships between characters, and some of those relationships work better than others. Hellboy is sweetly devoted to his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz, while she is unsure about their future together. Hellboy's aquatic pal Abraham Sapien awkwardly falls in love for the first time, with all of the sophistication of a gawky teenager. Prince Nuada and Princess Nuala, the elf twins, seem to be creepily closer than siblings ought to be, and I don't just mean that what hurts one hurts the other. Less convincing is Agent Manning's ineffective blustering and whining at the beginning of the film, or his attempts to ingratiate himself with the new agent, Johann Krauss. The interplay between Krauss and Hellboy provides much of the film's comic relief, and is well done.
Fantastic creatures are everywhere in this film. Some of them are slightly reminiscent of characters from del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, but all of them are stunning. The initial action scene features the introduction of little creatures we later discover are tooth fairies, and I suspect many people will never be able to think of tooth fairies in the same way ever again. An extended scene set in an underground troll market is packed with strange and fanciful beings, and it all works perfectly. There is no doubt that this place and these creatures are real, the illusion is so complete. Even the climactic battle scene with the golden army is rich and beautiful, perhaps the ultimate expression of the steampunk aesthetic. At no point do the visuals disappoint, and at many points they demand a repeat viewing.
Several points in the film feel underdeveloped, such as Prince Nuada's attempt to convince Hellboy that he has more in common with the elves and trolls than with the humans, who then begin to turn against him. There doesn't seem to be any real tension at all. Instead, the focus seems to be primarily on the battle between Hellboy and an earth elemental, and secondarily on how Hellboy handles a baby caught in the middle of the action. Hellboy almost acts as if he didn't even hear Prince Nuada, and yet doesn't pursue Nuada as he should. The most glaring example of this story clumsiness comes near the end of the film, so I must remain vague to avoid too much of the plot. Our protagonists set out on a life-or-death rescue mission, at the conclusion of which they should be able to safely return to New York. And yet, rescue mission accomplished, they continue on to confront Prince Nuada unnecessarily, setting up the final conflict. One of the crew had every reason to push for continuing, but the other three did not, and there was never even any on-screen discussion of the point. Since the climax of the film depended on a confrontation, a confrontation there was.
Where Pan's Labyrinth occasionally threatened to sacrifice story for visuals (but ultimately delivered the promised pathos), Hellboy II delivers on the threat. Fortunately, the story moves quickly enough that there is no time to linger over the clumsier parts of the story. The characters are engaging, if occasionally two-dimensional. The encounter with the Angel of Death may not hold as much tension as it might in the hands of a different writer, but the depth of passion in the relationship between Hellboy and Liz is enough. It may be unrealistic, but this is a story about a prince of Hell and his pyrokinetic girlfriend, so it may be the wrong place to look for realism. Both the visual effects and the story are better than the first Hellboy film, and the overall experience is a lot of fun.
Ron Perlman and Selma Blair return as Hellboy and Liz, and Jeffrey Tambor reprises his role as Agent Manning. While Abe Sapien is again played by Doug Jones, this time around he also provides the voice of the character; in the first film, David Hyde Pierce's voice was dubbed in. John Hurt appears again as Hellboy's adoptive father, but only in flashback.
Guillermo del Toro's next project is The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Hellboy II will certainly add to the fears of many fans that del Toro might not be the right person for the job. Favoring visuals over story is forgivable in a film based on a graphic novel, since that's a visual medium already. Doing the same for The Hobbit would be a serious mistake. However, I think Hellboy II's weak story is a reflection of the source material more than del Toro's ability. I also believe The Hobbit will prove to be more visually challenging than The Lord of the Rings, and will therefore require even better visual effects than Peter Jackon's WETA Workshop managed to produce for The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. The short characters, like Hobbits, were the clumsiest visual element in The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit abounds with dwarves. Peter Jackson's previous films Meet the Feebles, Heavenly Creatures, and The Frighteners did not form the best basis for predicting The Lord of the Rings, and I am confident that Guillermo del Toro has the ability to faithfully deliver The Hobbit in the same vein.