Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On a highway know

There’s been many superhero films this summer; some may boast spectacular performances, some may drip with prestige and take the genre down new avenues of legitimacy, but when all is tallied up I doubt any of them will be able to compete with the sense of wonder and creativity on display in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Having broken from the restrictions of the now seemingly obligatory origin tropes of the first film, writer/director Guillermo Del Toro sets about fleshing out the world of Hellboy, giving it a compelling mythology with some surprisingly heady thematic material. This time out Hellboy and his team of monsters as monster hunters at the BPRD must face an invasion of the human world by fairy creatures (Elves, trolls and the like) who are angry with the humans for forgetting about them and encroaching on what was supposed to be THEIR territory. Apparently Joni Mitchell was right, we paved paradise and put up a parking lot. There is an argument going on here for imagination, for myths and monsters. While our heroes ultimately choose to save humanity from the magical WMD that is the Golden army it is exceedingly clear that Del Toto wants his audience to sympathize with creatures, not humans.
There is a moment in the film where youu’re watching the giant human/demon hybrid Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the amphibious looking Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and a walking German ball of gas in a diving suit, Johann Krauss (voiced by Stewie Grffin himself Seth McFarlane) navigate their way through the creature filled Troll Market and you realize there is nothing even remotely human looking on-screen. Yet at the same time these creatures aren’t menacing each other, they’re going about their business no different than we might act. It is this dissonance in imbuing the inhuman with deep character and, for lack of a better term, humanity that makes the film the lush, imaginative and wholly immersive adventure experience. After years of dividing his time between enjoyable studio genre outings and smaller, more personal (but no less fantastical) Spanish language fantasies, Del Toro and his collaborators have found a happy medium. To go from visually expressive, original sequences like the aforementioned Troll market or a moving battle between Hellboy and a hulking forest elemental that bleeds moss and other plants to sweet, intimate character moments where the two leads drunkenly commiserate about their women troubles over a Barry Manilow tune. Hellboy continuously reveals a multitude of delights for the eye.
This is not to say that the film is flawless. With so many characters to juggle, some, like Selma Blair’s pyro-kinetic cutie Liz Sherman and Jeffrey Tambor’s officious blow-hard Agent Manning are relegated to the sidelines, mostly standing around while the other boys (errr monsters) do the heavy lifting. Del Toro’s dialogue will never be mistaken for Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet either, he writes truthfully but you won’t walk away quoting any particular line. The story itself, while unfolding perfectly over the course of the film seems at first glance unwieldy and explaining it to the unconverted will be a uphill battle for fans. However these are minor quibbles that seem insignificant compared to the amazing visual craft on display here from the extraordinary blend of character make-up and practical effects with CG to the deeply felt character work coupled with a delightfully snarky sense of humor.

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