[7 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If you ask Guillermo Del Toro what his most personal films are, the answer seems obvious - at first. The Devil’s Backbone was a chance for the Mexican moviemaker to discuss the impact of Spanish Civil War on his ancestral homeland. It combined a Gothic ghost story with a strong political agenda. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth extended the meditation to the Franquist repression during the Franco regime. Again, we got a mixture of history, heritage, honor, and horror. The third choice, however, is the oddest overall. While no one expects Blade 2 or Mimic to join the others, both Cronos and the original Hellboy were close to his humble geek heart.
Yet, oddly enough, it’s the sequel to his 2004 comic book hero epic that sits closest to the man’s soul. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation (new from Universal) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we hear Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.
You see, long ago, when the Earth was green, humanity and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could be let loose. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections. Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic demon with a decent heart named Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.
Clearly, the connection to Mike Mignola’s comic and character is now very loose, to say the least. In fact, Del Toro reveals as part of his discussion, that when he first heard the idea for a follow-up film, Hellboy’s daddy was distraught. He didn’t like or appreciate much about the follow-up. But leave it to the likable Latino with the mind of an ADD amplified arrested adolescent to bring him around. The Golden Army is indeed great. It is two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.
Del Toro has always been the biggest of genre mavens, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling over his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.
Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film.
Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.
All of these underlying themes and subtle subtexts are further explored in the DVDs bonus features (by the way, the final disc is just a digital copy of the film). We learn how the Troll Market reflects Del Toro’s views on good and evil. We see deleted scenes meant to strength the bonds between the characters. As part of the Director’s Notebooks, Del Toro discusses how Pan’s Labyrinth and the difficulty of said shoot allowed him to escape into the world of The Golden Army. And all throughout the added content, form and design, shape and approach are dissected and described, Del Toro’s unique idea for the film fleshed out by artisan’s able to fully realize his aims.
That’s why this movie is one of 2008’s best. Del Toro describes it best when he says that it’s the kind of film that, if he had seen it when he was an eager 11 year old, he would have obsessed on it for months. That’s because, instead of pulling back, this director unleashes the full force of his creative power - and the results are ridiculously resplendent. It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat.
So we really shouldn’t be surprised to see a gentle giant with Satan’s skin standing right alongside the real world characters caught between war and remembrance in Del Toro’s canon. To dismiss Hellboy II: The Golden Army as nothing more than a pleasant popcorn experience is to underestimate the power in this filmmaker’s soul. Of all the foreign voices finding a way in mainstream genre moviemaking, Guillermo Del Toro is truly one of the best. It will be interesting to see what he does when given the canvas crafted by Peter Jackson and the universe inhabited by the equally endemic characters of JRR Tolkien. If it’s anything like this amazing masterwork, the two-part Hobbit will be another item in Del Toro’s list of favorites. And what an impressive collection it is.