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Mr. Beaks Surrenders to HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY!

Just when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was about to enter his "mean" phase, along comes HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY to remind you that the man who broke your heart with PAN'S LABYRINTH has it in him to be the world's biggest sap. This is a quality worth celebrating. But beware: if del Toro earns the opportunity to payoff everything he's set up in this sequel, the HELLBOY trilogy is going to end like OLD YELLER. Until then, rejoice in the light melancholy of del Toro's best studio effort to date! Whereas HELLBOY succeeded despite the worst, homogenizing efforts of the studio (Sony), HELLBOY II flourishes because it feels like 100%, unadulterated Guillermo; true, he might be playing nicer than usual, but the monsters are still a thing of rare, grotesque, meticulously-designed beauty. As for the humans, they're either a bureaucratic hindrance (exemplified by Jeffrey Tambor's persistently flustered Manning) or just flat-out prejudiced against freaks. This dynamic is once again reminiscent of Bryan Singer's X-MEN movies, but Hellboy is much better company; unlike the angsty mutants (who mostly just want to be left alone), the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping, cat-loving agent of our eventual destruction eagerly craves the company of the flesh-and-bone other. That's why he uses every BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) mission as an excuse to "accidentally" get caught out in public; if Manning and the government won't let him mingle with the people he's saving on a daily basis, he'll force their hand. After a bedtime story prologue which sets up the backstory of the Elven King who will eventually get betrayed by his power-hungry son (it only sounds convoluted; the John Hurt telling of the tale is beautifully enhanced by some Henry Selick-esque animation), del Toro thrusts the audience right back into the BPRD stronghold, where Hellboy and Liz are squabbling, Manning is Manning, and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, who gets to voice his performance this time, and does it brilliantly) is listening to Vivaldi in his aquarium all by his lonesome. Right from the beginning, you can feel del Toro placing a greater emphasis on Abe; saddled with greater physical limitations than Hellboy, the erudite merman isn't about to go under-exploited for a second film in a row. That said, it's going to take some Barry Manilow and a shitload of Tecate to find the hopeless romantic buried under the scales. While this arc is deftly getting set up, del Toro rather bluntly tends to the main conflict of the narrative: Can Hellboy (and Liz and Abe for that matter) coexist with humans? After he allows himself to get blown through a high-rise window right onto a police car (in full view of a phalanx of television news cameras), H.B. has no choice but to find out whether the world is ready for him. At first, he's just a harmless object of ridicule - which Hellboy mostly loves (he's thrilled to see himself roasted on Jimmy Kimmel Live). But once that multi-dimensional troublemaker Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), aka the son of the aforementioned Elven king, starts unleashing gargantuan algae beasts (or something) on downtown Manhattan, Big Red realizes he must choose between the ungrateful bastards he's sworn to protect and the endangered creatures forced to do the bidding of a tyrant. Frustrating Nuada's attempts at Earthly dominion is his twin sister, Pincess Nuala (Anna Walton), who has absconded with a critical piece of the elf crown - which, when complete, will assemble the indestructible Golden Army. After rescuing her at the Troll Market (a creature f/x showcase that's a miraculous mix of practical and CG), Abe vows to protect Nuala at any cost; unfortunately, this means he'll cough up the last piece of the crown if he thinks it might save her life. Though the Hellboy-and-Liz relationship is even more compelling this time out, the soul of HELLBOY II is really Abe's schoolboy crush on Nuala. He's not only smitten with the princess, he's also somewhat jealous of Hellboy's bond with Liz; Abe desperately wants to connect with someone on that level, and he's willing to jeopardize the fate of the world for just a little more time with his true love. If Abe's the soul of HELLBOY II, the secret weapon is easily Seth MacFarlane's voicing of the officious ectoplasmic spirit, Johann Kraus. Stuck in an outfit that's half deep-sea diver, half-Mysterio, Kraus is obsessed with performing every task, no matter how menial, by the book. Essentially, Kraus is this film's non-banal, frighteningly German version of Agent Myers (whose absence is explained away with a single line of dialogue). While I'm no fan of FAMILY GUY, it's impossible to imagine anyone else nailing the voice of Kraus more palpably than MacFarlane. Del Toro's always had a thing for tragic romanticism, but he's careful not to let the downbeat destiny of seemingly every character detract from HELLBOY II's buoyancy of spirit. This is as big-hearted a superhero movie as I've seen since SPIDER-MAN 2 (thematically, del Toro is definitely on the same wavelength as Raimi), and it's a welcome respite when you've been bombarded with the dour duo of HANCOCK and WANTED in the same week. It's also a return to old-school Lucas/Henson world-creating in that many of the creatures inhabiting the other dimension are human actors lumbering about in makeup. Walking out of the movie, a friend of mine made the comparison I was afraid to voice for fear of hyperbole, but he was absolutely right: the Troll Market sequence is the modern-day equivalent of the Cantina in STAR WARS. It's a feast of weirdness that could've only be cooked up by Guillermo del Toro. Somewhere (probably over in England applying makeup to another del Toro), Rick Baker is very proud. (And it's so seamless, you have to wonder what went wrong with the kid Hellboy makeup at the very beginning of the film. Thankfully, this is del Toro's only major misstep.) For many, HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY will play like a warm-up to THE HOBBIT. That's all well and good, but now that del Toro's mastered his variation on Mike Mignola's universe, it'd be a shame if he never returned to it. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

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