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Hell is Crowded. So is Hellboy II.

Give the devil his due: I said of the underwhelming Hellboy in 2004 (which I watched again last week, and remained underwhelmed by) that hopefully, like Bryan Singer and the X-Men series, Guillermo del Toro would be able to work out the kinks in time for the sequel. Well, four years have passed, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army is now upon us. And the verdict? Well, HB-II: TGA is by almost every reckoning a brisker, more confident, and more satisfying movie than its predecessor. (I say “almost” because, with the transition from Nazis and Lovecraft to the World of Warcraft, Hellboy seems slightly out of his milieu this time.) That being said, I felt The Golden Army, while entertaining throughout, didn’t quite cohere for me as a film: It plays more like a sprawling collection of fun ideas, haphazardly strung together, than a movie of a piece. Now, originality goes a long way, and I’ll give del Toro bonus points for really letting his freak flag fly this time ’round. (If nothing else, HB-II occasionally seems like a test FX-reel for The Hobbit.) Still, while I was impressed by the breadth of del Toro’s imagination, I can’t say I ever felt absorbed by it. For whatever reason, and not for lack of trying, Hellboy II: The Golden Army left me reasonably amused and distracted for two hours, and not much else.

The films begins with a stop-motion fairy tale. As a (goofily-designed) preadolescent in 1955, Hellboy was told the tale of the Golden Army, an unstoppable goblin-forged force commanded by an elven king in his war against that teeming, grasping nuisance, humanity. But dismayed by the carnage wrought, said king ultimately decided to sign a truce with humankind — men get the cities, elves get the forests — much to the consternation of his son, Prince Nuada. Cut to the present day: The humans have, as WALL-E foreshadowed, plowed through the forests for their strip malls and parking lots, and thus Nuada (Luke Goss) has returned to fight the ancient war anew.

But, standing in his way, for better or worse, are the motley protectors of humankind, the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development). Among their number, the kindly, bookish fish-man Abraham Sapien (Doug Jones, not too far removed from Threepio), the powerful pyrokinetic Liz Sheridan (Selma Blair, all blue fire and bedroom eyes), and, of course, Big Red himself, the kitty-loving, cigar-chomping spawn of Lucifer, Hellboy (Ron Perlman, clearly having fun). But, one must ask, in a war between the freaks and the humans, why are Hellboy et al on the side of the latter, particularly when mankind seems to fear and despise their lot? Clearly, the BPRD gang have some considerations to make.

That’s arguably the main thread of Hellboy II, but there’s quite a bit else going on — too much, in fact. Y’see, Hellboy very much wants to take the team public, and he and Liz are having some space issues, and Liz has a secret of her own, and Abe may have met the (elvish) girl of his dreams, and, along with last film’s comic relief (Jeffrey Tambor), there’s a new freak in town, an ectoplasmic German martinet named Johann Krauss (Seth McFarlane, of Family Guy). Oh, and let’s not forget the Troll Market (a showy cantina-style setpiece in the middle going), a (IMHO, strained) Barry Manilow musical number, and even an encounter with the Angel of Death.

Now some might rightly argue that I’m looking the gift hellspawn in the maw here, and that one should just sit back and relish the cornucopia of imaginative riches on display. Fair enough — There are some memorable images throughout (I particularly liked the autumn of the elemental), and this is miles more interesting than, say, The Incredible Hulk. But I still think the movie would’ve been more captivating had it been less episodic. Despite the many innovative ideas on display, The Golden Army — much like Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — at times feels more like a notebook dump than a movie. (But as I said, if this what it takes for del Toro to clear the mental decks pre-Hobbit, I’m all for it.)

Nevertheless, if Hellboy was too little, and Hellboy II turned out to be too much, I’d still probably be up for a Hellboy 3, several years from now, on the other side of Middle Earth. Particularly if it goes back to plumbing the Cthulhian depths suggested in the original, the third film could end up being juussst riiight.

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