The UK distributors touted this Summer comic book sequel as ‘from the visionary creator of Pan’s Labyrinth’, which somewhat reverses auteur Guillermo del Toro’s strategy of alternating personal projects with commercial efforts – though there are clearly plot and visual elements here which make the film at least as much a follow-up to Pan’s Labyrinth as Hellboy. Oddly, this isn’t entirely a good thing: the magical sequences in Pan’s Labyrinth were more effective for not being allowed to dominate the whole movie, but there’s a tendency here to blot out the real world too completely and wander in magic realms full of wonders but bereft of real people.
It opens with confidence in a 1950s flashback as Professor Broom (John Hurt) – the films can’t get their heads round the comic’s idea that character’s name is spelled Bruttenholm but pronounced ‘Broom’ – tells a Howdy Doody-watching kid Hellboy (Montse Ribe) a Christmas Eve bedtime story illustrated in Eastern European animated style which sets up the present-day plot. Long, long ago, the King of Elves (Roy Dotrice) commissioned goblin workmen to whip up a horde of golden robot warriors to tip the balance in a war between magic folk and humanity – but a truce was brokered, and the army went into mothballs, while the golden crown which controls it was broken up into three pieces. The King’s grudge-holding, petulant son Nuada (Luke Goss, in a role exactly equivalent to that he took in del Toro’s Blade 2) is now out to put the crown back together in order to unleash the army and wipe out humanity.
This glues together a rickety comic plot that depends on the hoary device (used in Lara Croft Tomb Raider) of scattered components to be reclaimed in individual set-pieces before being put together for the climax (logic dictates that smashing the crown into a million bits and dropping them in the deepest oceans would have solved the problem before it started). We catch up with Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and other regulars at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence – his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), fishman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, now allowed to do the voice too) and bureaucrat Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) – in scenes which feel a touch too Men in Black, as plot elements from Hellboy are forgotten (Hellboy’s rapprochement with Manning) or drawn out (his troubled relationship with Liz – who is now secretly pregnant, though there’s no sense of how they can have had a sex life). A new weird character — German ectoplasmic man-in-a-diving-suit Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) – is added to the team, and Nuada’s twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) brings them into the case while stirring romantic feelings in Abe that are pretty much doomed since it’s established that anything done to the villain will also harm his sister (she commits suicide at the end, though again getting this over with earlier could have saved a lot of trouble).
The plot advances through set-pieces which are individually impressive and imaginative, but strung together rather clumsily: an encounter with vicious tooth fairies in the ruins of an auction house, a visit to a troll market under Brooklyn Bridge, a fight with a Biollante-like giant tree-flower-tentacly elemental and, inevitably, the awakening of the golden army in a subterranean labyrinth in Ireland a bit too much like the subterranean labyrinth in Russia at the end of Hellboy. Of course, the revival of the horde is a damp squib – since, after a good sequence in which the heroes make an inroad into the enemy only for the smashed robots to reassemble, it boils down to single combat between hero and villain and the army standing down. It’s stuck with a soapy/comicky thread about Hellboy learning to be responsible, especially when fatherhood is imminent (we frankly dread the addition of mutant hellkids to the franchise), and settling down with Liz (Selma Blair is underused), and the good and bad elves are a shade too insipid to carry the plot weight expected of them. It is consistently amazing visually, with incidental fantasy characters (an Angel of Death) as vividly realised as those of Pan’s Labyrinth and lots of good detail-work – but, if the saga is to continue, the game needs to be raised scriptwise …