Hellboy II: The Golden Army

(2008) *** Pg-13
120 min. Universal Pictures Distribution. Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, Seth MacFarlane.

/content/films/3139/18.jpgThe line from special effects whiz Ray Harryhausen to director Guillermo del Toro has never been so clearly visible as it is in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The comic-book sequel—based on the series by Mike Mignola—is like a highlight reel from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, skipping the boring parts and amping up the budget to the $85 million range. That's a bargain budget for a film with this much wonderment, with creatures small, medium, large, and extra-large emerging at every plot turn.

Del Toro again scripts, working from a story co-written with Mignola, and the film's opening sequence very cleverly reintroduces the character of Hellboy while setting up the supernatural story for the film (bonus: a cameo appearance by John Hurt's dearly departed Dr. Broome). A demon raised by Broome on "TV and candy" and knowledge and heart, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is the top agent of the super-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, located in Trenton, NJ. At least his government keeper Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) would like to keep the Bureau secret, but that's a tall order when the indiscreet and irrepressible Hellboy goes out on the town. Hellboy has two partners in fighting the nasty beasties that encroach on the human world: his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and the amphibious empath Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, no longer overdubbed by David Hyde Pierce).

The BPRD working dynamic is quickly rattled. First, Hellboy and Liz are fighting (she needs her space). Second, Hellboy accidentally but definitively "outs" the BPRD. And third, a new agent arrives: Johann Kraus (John Alexander & James Dodd; voice of Seth MacFarlane) a by-the-book, ectoplasmic German contained in a special suit and gifted with psychic ability (sez loose cannon Hellboy, "Germans make me nervous"). The team is tasked with figuring out whom spectacularly stole part of a crown (of supernatural provenance) from an auction house. Turns out whomever holds the complete crown of King Balor (Roy Dotrice of Perlman's Beauty and the Beast)—the one-armed king of Elfland—summons the power of the Golden Army, a force of "seventy by seventy" mechanical soldiers. Prince Nuada (a commanding Luke Goss) wants nothing more than that power, but his psychically linked sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) determines to stop him.

It's apropo that Hellboy's ultimate challenge is mechanical, with a showdown fought on shifting gears. The story-propelling gears under the film's synthetic skin are sometimes evident, fostering an impression of lack of spontaneity (and allowing a rather obvious plothole involving Abe's rare failure to think ahead). Still, it's a worthwhile trade for the generous imagination of a director who favors the organic (practical effects, performers in suits and makeup) over CGI. The film's first dazzling, high-tension action sequence involves a large quantity of creepy-crawlies dubbed "tooth fairies." A visit to the Troll Market secreted under the Brooklyn Bridge recalls Star Wars' Mos Eisley Cantina and Jim Henson's woodland oeuvre, while suggesting Harry Potter at last directed by Terry Gilliam. We also get CGI-enhanced encounters with a forest god, a rock creature, and the golden army, always with a tasteful, detailed execution.

/content/films/3139/28.jpgFor all the monstrous supernature on display, the film's concerns are always rooted in the human. Even as they fight the creatures at war with the human world, Hellboy and his compatriots are thanklessly rejected by the bulk of greedy, consumptive humanity. In keeping with these ideas, the fearsome villain is also sympathetic to a degree, in that he believes he's protecting his kind from extinction (or, to put it more bluntly, genocide by encroaching humanity). His sister argues, "If our days have ended, let us all fade." These points come to a head when Hellboy, clutching a baby in his tail, fights the forest god; Nuada turns up to ask Hellboy why he should bother to save those who reject him when he could help wipe them out and live freely among the supernatural creatures.

The ostracized heroes only want what we want: to make a living and share it, in love, with another. The film could just as well have been called "Hellboy II: Anything for Love," despite the hero's proviso "I would give my life for her. But she also wants me to do the dishes." Abe, too, gets a romance with Nuala, and he commiserates with Hellboy over a beer and a delightfully goofy choice of drinking song. It's a measure of del Toro's mass appeal (Blade II) and art-film cred (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) that he quotes in Hellboy II both Bride of Frankenstein and Tennyson's "In Memoriam." With his beer and his cigars, Hellboy demonstrates del Toro's faith in Joe Sixpack. Though rash, the big guy (Hellboy, Joe Sixpack, or Del Toro—take your pick) gets the job done, and underneath his brashness, he's a softie and a family man.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 7.1 Surround

Street date: 11/11/2008

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Collectively, Universal and director Guillermo del Toro have outdone themselves with a ridiculously comprehensive Blu-ray set, mirrored on DVD, for Hellboy II: The Golden Army. It all starts with a spectacular hi-def transfer that perfectly presents director Guillermo del Toro's vision, with crisp and colorful accuracy. It's a reference-quality transfer with which I can find no fault. Add that to a definitive DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 7.1 Surround soundtrack, and you have a disc "born" to show off your home theater.

The bonus features are likewise second to none. Disc one, the Blu-ray disc, houses the lion's share of the extras, while disc two, a DVD, hosts the feature-length making-of documentary and a few other features, beginning with a welcoming "Prologue" (:22) from del Toro. The documentary, "Hellboy: In Service of the Demon" (2:34:51), is longer than then film it chronicles, so it leaves little to the imagination. All of the players are here: del Toro, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, the key crew, and Ron Perlman and the rest of the cast. This exhaustive doc offers awesome behind-the-scenes access and insights that live up to the potential for Blu-ray and DVD to be a "film school on a disc." Disc two also serves up Marketing Campaign, with "Print Gallery" and "Poster Explorations," and the film's script, accessible by DVD-ROM functionality.

Disc one showcases Universal's patented U-Control. Accessible either from the U-Control menu or on the fly during playback (with U-Control enabled) are a wealth of enlightening and entertaining extras. Scene Explorer: Schufften Goggle View is a multi-angle tool offering four different views of several enabled special effects-laden scenes. Director's Notebook may be the coolest feature for del Toro fans: several scenes allow the viewer to launch pages recreating del Toro's design portfolio for the film, with elements on the "page" hyperlinked to del Toro interviews about the relevant creature creations. Set Visits bring out behind-the-scenes glimpses that capture the preparations for various scenes before the cameras roll (the first, for example, finds Doug Jones suiting up as the Chamberlain and demonstrating his newly learned Gaelic). The Concept Art Gallery pops up with concept paintings for comparison at the appropriate moment in the film.

Universal also ponied up for two screen-specific feature-length commentaries, one with del Toro and one with Jeffrey Tambor, Selma Blair & Luke Goss. Fans will gleefully devour these, the first offering del Toro's detailed observations (he's an old hand at providing great commentaries) and the second providing a more freewheeling track with three distinctive personalities and a greater emphasis on anecdotes.

The "Troll Market Tour with Guillermo del Toro" (12:22) allows the director to guide us through the film's most impressive set (and that's saying something). The feature Production Workshop: Professor Broom's Puppet Theatre begins with an "Introduction" (1:29) by del Toro, which leads into a three-panel "Thumbnail Story Progression" with optional commentary by del Toro (3:12); the panels display sketches, storyboards, and the finished scene. Several brief Deleted Scenes (5:04) also come with an optional del Toro commentary, and eagle-eyed home-video hounds will also dig up an easter egg Gag Reel (3:03), with the bonus novelty of seeing monsters flub their lines.

The "Zinco Epilogue Animated Comic" (5:14) effectively adds on a scene to the film, one written by Mike Mignola & del Toro. The Comic Book Builder is a nifty tool that allows the viewer to select frames from the film, position them within a comic-book page and add captions in order to create a Hellboy II comic book. Through the magic of BD Live, fans can also share their comic books with others online. I tried it out, and it works quite nicely: I suspect this feature would be most appealing to kids looking for an aesthetic outlet that also functions as a training wheels graphic design experience. Last up on disc one is a Gallery that houses Creature Designs, Mike Mignola Creator Gallery, Production Design art, and Production Stills.

In addition to all of the above, Universal has loaded up the Blu-ray with BD Live options, including My Scenes (allowing the viewer to bookmark and share favorite scenes), My Chat (enabling live chat during synchronized playback with friends old or new), and more. I can't recommend this set enough, particularly on 2-disc Blu-ray, but also on 3-disc DVD.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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