[5 December 2008]
That Hellboy II: The Golden Army distinguished itself for audiences and critics during the past summer’s deluge of comic book-y entertainments, opening one week before The Dark Knight no less, undoubtedly owes much to the rising star of Guillermo del Toro.
I’m an ardent reader of Hellboy, and the related B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), and I’d like to think that the artistic and critical successes of the films have something to do with the strength of Mike Mignola’s original creations. But I am under no illusions about Hellboy and company’s public profile. Big red and the B.P.R.D. are hardly as recognizable as Iron Man, or even Speed Racer, let alone Batman or Indiana Jones. It is del Toro’s presence behind the camera that makes people take notice of these films. So, it comes as no surprise that the limited “3-Disc Special Edition” DVD for Hellboy II is as much a tribute to the writer-director as it is a showcase for the film.
From the beginning, del Toro has made the characters from the comics his own, adding traits unique to the films. The most notable of these is the romance between Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), but virtually none of the featured protagonists and antagonists escape reworking by the auteur.
However, while the first film, 2004’s Hellboy, took these reimagined characters and placed them in a story largely poached from the books, Hellboy II has them in an original narrative and in a world very much the creation of, as the back of the DVD box puts it, “the visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth”.
The premise of the new film will be familiar to avid readers and viewers of fantasy: the world we know is not entirely what it seems, but is cleaved into two, the everyday—school, work, home—and the fantastic, full of magic and creatures that are the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
In Hellboy II, an ancient truce keeps the two worlds separate. Now, however, the elven Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who objected to the pact from the beginning, returns from exile to argue that humanity has violated its side of the agreement by laying claim to more than its fair share of the Earth. He seeks to collapse the distance between the world’s two halves with devastating consequences for the human species.
His primary tool of retribution/genocide is the Golden Army, a virtually indestructible force of metal, fire, and magic. To accomplish this, he must reunite the pieces of a crown, which, when restored and wielded by someone of royal lineage, will command the army. The pieces were divided between the elves and humans at the time of the truce, one piece to humanity and two to the elves. Nuada retrieves two of the three sections early in the film, the human piece and one held by his father, Balor (Roy Dotrice), but the third is held by his sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). The Princess eventually falls in with the B.P.R.D. after being noticed/sensed by amphibious mystic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) during an investigation of the “Troll Market” hidden in Brooklyn.
The main action of the film unfolds from here, with Hellboy ultimately challenging Nuada for control of the Golden Army (one of the few story elements del Toro borrows from the comics for the sequel is Hellboy’s “destiny” as “Anung Un Rama, World Destroyer”, which, in the narrative’s end game, affords him the right to lay claim to the crown controlling the Army).
Watching Hellboy II it’s hard not to feel as if there’s more going on than can possibly be shown in two hours. The central extra feature on the “Bonus Disc” included with the “Special Edition” DVD, a two and a half hour making-of documentary, Hellboy: In Service of the Demon”, affirms this, fleshing out background on characters, especially the unique creations for the film, but also for del Toro’s version of Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), an ectoplasmic spirit held in a sort of Victorian diving suit. Most telling is the manner in which the writer-director casually uses words and phrases like “Troll Market” as if they had referents in the world outside of the film.
Of course they do in del Toro’s imagination, and as he notes in the “Pre-Production” segment of the documentary, we all at some level “know” what a goblin, an elf, an ogre, and so forth look like. del Toro plays with and seeks to move beyond popular images of fantasy creatures, looking for designs that defy what we understand of anatomy and physiology, fusing the organic with the seemingly inorganic, and featuring geometries that fall outside the bounds of known nature.
In Service of the Demon also makes clear that it is the storyworld that matters as much as, if not more than, the story to the director. To adapt Mignola’s characters to ones of his own making in a narrative that strikes chords of dreams and imagination and adventure, the same ones that animated Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), seems to have been a primary purpose in making Hellboy II, and, in that, he certainly succeeds. The film is crowded with amazing looking creations, some of which get to be featured, while others are merely texture for the landscape. The B.P.R.D. and its agents are certainly at home here, even if this is their first real visit.
One quality that distinguishes del Toro’s visual style from other similar directors, like George Lucas, or even Peter Jackson, is his primary use of “practical effects”, that is, make-up, animatronics, constructed sets, etc., rather than computer-generated images (CGI), as the basic media for creating fantasy characters and their environments. He, and his design and effects teams, still employ CGI to augment their creations, but they mostly build from a base of material objects. The kind of realism that the creatures in Hellboy II and Pan’s achieve is due in part to how unreal, and therefore, otherworldly, they look. This is a major point of discussion in the making-of feature, and manifests itself most spectacularly in the film in the character of Mr. Wink (Brian Steele) and a battle scene with a huge “forest elemental” in the city.
The “Bonus Disc” includes not only the actually-longer-than-the-film documentary, but also:
A “Production Workshop”, which compares artwork from different stages of development for a puppet show that illustrates Professor Bruttenholm’s (John Hurt) bedtime story to a young Hellboy (Montse Ribé), a sequence that cleverly provides the historical background for Nuada’s plans.
A “Pre-Production Vault” that includes selections from del Toro’s “Director’s Notebook”, as well as variety of artwork and still images, including sketches by Mike Mignola. The “Director’s Notebook” is enhanced by “video pods” which can be clicked for additional illustration and elaboration by del Toro.
A “Marketing Campaign” feature consisting of poster images and concepts.
And a PDF version of the script that you can access from the DVD drive on a computer.
The main disc also holds extra content, including:
Two commentary tracks, one with del Toro and one with Selma Blair, Luke Goss, and Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning in the films); both are engaging, although the director’s is more densely packed with production detail.
“Set Visits”, which offer more or less candid footage of the film being shot.
A tour of the Troll Market with the director.
Deleted scenes, which can be watched with commentary from del Toro.
And an animated comic book “Epilogue”, which hints at a third movie that brings back characters from the first, and is more closely allied to the books. The “Epilogue” was written by Mike Mignola.
The third disc in the “Special Edition” is a digital copy of the movie that can be loaded into iTunes or Windows Media Player, and then transferred to an iPod or other portable media device. This version of the film is clearly formatted for the smaller video players. On my laptop the picture is not only grainy, but suffers from repeated pausing and stuttering during playback. These problems go away on my iPod, but that’s hardly the best way to watch the film. Still, this is a nice extra, even if it is an artifact of an outdated copyright system.
While del Toro describes his films as honoring the comics and Mignola’s creations, it is fitting that In Service of the Demon ends its exploration of Hellboy II with the scene wherein Nuada confronts, and ultimately kills, Balor. This moment is one that highlights characters created by del Toro for the film, rather than those he has inherited, and is also pivotal to the mythology he invented for the movie. While del Toro graciously draws attention to his direct and indirect collaboration with Mignola, it is also evident that the comics are the comics and the movies are the movies, and the latter belong to del Toro. The director flatters his source material not with imitation, but by taking what he loves from the books and turning them to his own sensibilities.
Any fan or admirer of a literary work that gets adapted to film is going to have at least quibbles if not full disagreement with certain choices made by the filmmakers. I could catalog these here, but I’d rather not. Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, or Hellboy, may not be mine, or Mike Mignola’s, or Mignola’s Dark Horse editor Scott Allie’s, or anyone’s but del Toro’s, and that’s not really a problem. The movies based on the comics are in brilliantly creative hands, ones that craft images of beauty and high fantasy, and that is far more valuable than is some misguided notion of fealty to the print canon.