I can review this movie in a single sentence: There are many of wonderful and magical things about Hellboy II, but unfortunately the story isn’t one of them.
There. Done. So long!
Or maybe I could go a bit beyond that and talk about how amazing the character designs are, and how impressive it is to see a film that is based around building something out of the elements of classic fantasy rather than the ridiculous mish-mash of maniacal horror villains that have served us as the basis of most non sci-fi genre films made in the last half century. After all, aren’t the monsters from Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and a hundred other modern horror films also fantasy characters? They’re not really real, that’s for sure. And yes, they’re homicidal maniacs, but in the end they’re cut from the same cloth as vampires, werewolves, trolls, and a hundred other things that have gone bump in the night for over a thousand years.
Hellboy II is different though. It’s menace comes out of the same tradition as Lord of the Rings. They’re creatures from a world that exists at a broken angle just outside of our own. Beasts rising out from the cracks in the mirror. On that level alone there are enough fresh ideas in this film to make it worth seeing, even if the story its trying to tell is weak, disjointed, and just plain broken.
Lawrence Miles, a most excellent writer, recently posted something about the new Doctor Who episodes that I think resonates perfectly with Hellboy II (and is probably worth a post all by itself):
Any CGI monster is by definition going to be regarded as a Special Effect rather than a natural part of the story. The advantage of a “real” monster, whether it’s a Dalek, a gasmask-zombie, or even a Muppet, is that it stops being bizarre after the first couple of minutes. The audience begins to treat it as a normal element of the story-world, and accepts it as a given fact, which means that we find the programme much more engaging. Whereas the point of a computer sprite will always be to make the viewer say “gosh, wow, look!”, and the result of this is usually a series of set-pieces in which the episode shows off the CGI as much as possible whether we care about it or not.
And with HB2 you get both practical and CGI creatures. The real-world creations walk, lumber, and stagger around. Even Hellboy himself is by and large a suit, with the actors face peering out from underneath the red paint, grinning with a set of large white teeth. Added into this group of heroes is Johan, a Prussian gasbag, whose containment suit costume is a prop of such gorgeous artistry that I often found myself simply admiring its hundreds of tiny details while the story fell to pieces around it. Beyond the director’s obvious understanding of the nature of fantasy, it’s that kind of attention to minutia that clearly makes Del Toro the right man to handle the Hobbit.
It’s also used to build up the backbone of the story, with multiple emotional arcs being centered around the relationships between the different oddities inhabiting the story and the rest of the human race. Even the human characters are monsters to be shunned by the normal people. It’s a powerful idea, but like much of the film’s narrative, it’s only used as shorthand, and then discarded once its work is done.
The CGI spectacles are definitely eye-catching, with one big monster in particular reminding me of something straight of Miyazaki. It’s a simply breathtaking creation (even if its weak-point is a videogame trope straight out of the ending of Half-Life). But again, the narrative lets us down: When the villain chides Hellboy for wanting to kill it you’re right there with him, wondering why he would want do that to something so magnificent and grand. But if you take a second to think about it, you realize that it was the villain himself who unleashed it after our hero, commanding it to kill him. It’s a juicy moral dilemma that the film utterly avoids sinking its teeth into.
The movie’s gorgeous tapestry is riddled with hundreds of these little plot holes, leaving a film that delivers exceptional moments, but never bothers to earn them. Instead, when it wants you to feel something it simply holds you down and pours the emotions straight into your throat, like a bottle of emotional castor oil.
And oddly enough, maybe in the end you do feel a little bit better walking out of the theater than you did walking in. But it still leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.