For 15 years, Del Toro's been one of cinema's most prolific, successful fabulists, helming as many beautiful, tragic historical allegories as fantasy-tinged blockbusters. It's been a hell of a ride, reel after reel (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth and in 2011 -- cue geek swoon -- The Hobbit) of consistently jaw-dropping magic realism.
Del Toro is least successful when he fails to follow his muse masquerading supernaturalism as science, a container that then bulges under strain of explanation. Blade II (2002) and Mimic (1997) both looked beautiful, but they were digressive, oddly paced and, more often than not, made no damn sense.
No, Del Toro is much more comfortable not having to explain why demons stalk the earth. They just do, in his mind, either as actual beasts tugging at the strings of the mortal plane or as elaborate allegories for humanity's more ghastly, destructive impulses (and a few of its redemptive ones).
It's hard to imagine a better choice to enflesh Hellboy, a comic by Mike Mignola that takes the interplay between natural and supernatural for granted. Ron Perlman -- a great American actor who enjoys more prestige in Europe than here -- plays the title character, a demon discovered by the U.S. Army in the '40s and enlisted by the federal government to protect America when the netherworld intrudes on our own. An enjoyably idiosyncratic character, he's a killing machine motivated by a desire to be loved, a taste for cigars and a soft-spot for imperiled kittens.
In the first Hellboy, Del Toro turned New York's underworld into a playground for demons that replicated endlessly. The second film is a playground of a different kind. Del Toro has taken pains to create an entire zoo of weird, creepy, cute and cute-but-deadly creatures. He seems to have plumbed all the recesses of his imagination for supernatural scenery. For variety and strangeness of inhabitants, Del Toro's goblin market rivals Star Wars' Mos Eisley Cantina. The rest of the film is just as brilliantly populated.
Certain stretches of dialogue clunk along artlessly, especially an opening sequence that explains the Golden Army's origin. It'd be easy to pass this off as the foibles of a screenwriter whose first language isn't English. In general, though, Del Toro's script is nuanced for a blockbuster sequel, building on the tropes of the first film in funny and affecting ways. The dialogue of certain characters, especially Hellboy himself and Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) absolutely crackles. The dubbing is frequently askew, so maybe a bigger problem than Del Toro's grasp of English is a script seemingly revised on the fly during filming. The story is compelling enough -- revolving around an ancient, indestructible goblin army and a power-mad elf prince -- but it's these strange creatures that really make Hellboy II fun to watch.
The upside of Hellboy II is considerable. It's a fun, smart film by a brilliant, original cinematic voice that tries to reclaim the summer spectacle as a feast for the imagination as much as a treat for the eyes. (Rated PG-13)