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By Pete Vonder Haar | July 11, 2008

The first “Hellboy” movie, released in 2004, benefited greatly from a lack of expectations. Like other recent/in development properties such as the X-Men, Spider-Man, or Batman, “Hellboy” was based on a comic book. Unlike the others, it was a comic that few people had ever read. Mike Mignola’s surly demon with a penchant for beer and kittens was far from a household name, and of the movie’s cast, it was hard to say who was less well-known. You had “that guy from the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ TV show (Ron Perlman),” “the dude whose stomach got blown out in ‘Alien (John Hurt),’” and the voice of Frasier’s effeminate TV brother (an uncredited David Hyde Pierce). As for the director (Guillermo Del Toro), he was perhaps best known for helming the “Blade” sequel, if the average moviegoer knew his name at all.

One Best Screenplay Oscar nod (not to mention three wins) for “Pan’s Labyrinth” later and nobody was bitching about “Hellboy’s” mediocre box office. Del Toro was suddenly the toast of Hollywood, or at least that part of Hollywood keen on doing more genre material, and his name was soon attached to projects ranging from the upcoming “Hobbit” adaptation to “Doctor Strange,” another comic property. So it’s understandable that Universal’s advertising push for “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” leans heavily on Del Toro’s Oscar glory.

This, as it turns out, is probably unnecessary, for “Hellboy II” is plenty solid on its own merits. Reuniting most of the original cast (save Rupert “Agent Myers” Evans and Pierce), and adding a slew of new characters and monsters, Del Toro doesn’t mess with what worked in the first film. Hellboy (Perlman), pyrokinetic Liz (Selma Blair), and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) are still working for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Hellboy and Liz are working through the kinks most new couples experience, though these are augmented by the fact that both can level large sections of real estate when their blood is up.

There’s also a new team leader, the ectoplasmic Johann Krauss. Secured in a containment suit and voiced by Seth “Family Guy” MacFarlane, Krauss has been brought aboard just as the team must contend with rebellious Elven prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who has to assemble a mystical crown in order to raise the legendary Golden Army and wage war upon mankind and…

Yeah, when you write it all out it sounds pretty stupid. And while it’s nice of Mignola and Del Toro to create something like this out of whole cloth it’s the eye candy, not the story, that people are going to talk about. As in the first “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Del Toro teams up with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro to create a series of fantastical set pieces, crammed with more bizarre creatures and offhand weirdness than you can possibly process in one viewing. “Stunning” isn’t a word I like to bandy about, but I had a hard time taking my eyes off the screen. Few directors can bring it visually like Del Toro, and “Hellboy II” doesn’t disappoint.

“Hellboy II” is better than the first in some ways: the superfluous Agent Meyers is gone, Doug Jones is great as Abe, and Strauss is an amusing addition (if almost structurally identical to Karl Kroenen). What’s more, Del Toro still cooks up a nice bouillabaisse of the humorous (Hellboy and Abe drunkenly belting out “Can’t Smile Without You”) and the horrific (tiny creatures that eat you alive, starting with your teeth). But “Hellboy II” never reaches the same level of urgency as the original. Elves? Goblins? Where are the eldritch horrors from beyond time and space? And while some late mention is made of Hellboy’s grim destiny, we still don’t make a lot of headway regarding the whole ‘instigator of Armageddon’ thing. “Hellboy II” is still a splendid effort, but in spite of all the nasties faced down by the BPRD, things feel more… inconsequential somehow.

And then there’s that goddamn Manilow song.

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