A number of critics I was sitting near, exclaimed at the end of “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army,” that this movie was an audition as well as proof of how good Guillermo del Toro’s version of “The Hobbit,” could be. I certainly hope it was neither. Going to the zoo and expecting the polar bear and the zebra to look and behave alike will leave viewers puzzled and unhappy with both animals.
Viewers expecting to take a peek into Middle-earth will probably be horrified as the Mexican-born director lays out his second film about a red demon and his supernatural menagerie that fight the dark forces that threaten the world as part of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. (The BPRD for the uninitiated.) That isn’t to say the film isn’t singularly sharp as a monster movie and “buddy-cop” movie with beauty-and-the-beast elements thrown in, it just isn’t “The Hobbit.”
The film feels more like the goof ball cousin of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the director’s 2006 dark drama that doesn’t exactly go for the viewer’s funny bone. It is easy to feel that the same visionary that created the horrifying creatures brought to life in that Academy Award winning cinematic masterpiece is pulling the strings here, but with a completely different intent.
It is as if the faun in that film could be walking around Hellboy’s “troll market,” which showcases a variety of horrors and delights that while visionary and dramatically visual, share little with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. They owe their genesis partly to George Lucas’ cantina scene in the original Star Wars film but the greater debt could be laid at the feet of the creators of myth and demonology-focused tales that began as soon as humans first shared tales around primitive campfires.
Del Toro demonstrates clearly that he has a deep, emotional love as well as an intellectual interest in monsters and myth, or as Hellboy films have called it, the things that go bump in the night. Del Toro trots out humor and horror that actually beckons back to the early film cannon of none other than Peter Jackson but with a much bigger budget than Jackson’s early independent days. A viewer might do well to bring his demonology guide book to help spot the flora and fauna del Toro has invoked from the world’s collective mythic catalog.
What makes the film work though, is its sense of humor. This is a monster film with men in rubber suits. Joining the brilliant Ron Perlman as the titular character is Doug Jones as the contemplative creature from the black lagoon who talks, walks and feels. Along with newly introduced Johann Kraus (an animated (living, not drawn) German deep-sea diving suit with a bubble head) del Toro excells at brining the inhuman and making them completely human, at least emotionally. Krause becomes a full-blown character without having a face of any note at all, but still connects with the audience. The usually more than solid Selma Blair, the lone actor who isn’t emoting through layers of effects, is a bit of a letdown as Liz Sherman. Her performance lacks the emotional resonance that the non-human cast delivers. Even the villain of the flick, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), feels more authentic and sympathetic.
The best moments of the film are, without a doubt, when these impossible beings relate to one another and the audience. It is the domestic struggles of a man-demon or a sentient amphibian that crave affection and acceptance and is hounded by a nagging boss (Jeffrey Tambor) that makes the film work. What is much less important to the film are the action sequences featuring yet more monsters, many of them seemingly escaped from the set of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Don’t tell del Toro I said so, but at times the rubber suits were showing while the CGI creatures of the climax were quite well realized.
Serious minded viewers who go expecting the layers of emotional depth after his last film will be disappointed. This is a monster movie intended to be big, grand fun at the cinema with lots of jokes (a few of which are 500-foot, out-of-the-park comedy home runs) that has its absurd moments. It requires the audience to lay back and relax and float in the comic-book fun, not to analyze or think critically.
I feel confident del Toro wasn’t thinking about “The Hobbit” as he put together this second Hellboy film. It isn’t an audition for “The Hobbit,” but perhaps instead for H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” (By the way, after the two Hobbit films rake in mountains of money, the bet here is a studio will finally green light that project for del Toro, giving us something to look forward to at the cinema in, say, 2014.)
This film isn’t the Hobbit and why critics and viewers insist on trying to cram a director’s film into the same box as a different film fits in is beyond me. The created world here isn’t Middle-earth and how pathetic a vision would it have if it was? Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield and a band of adventuring Dwarves will not be handled on screen or in a script the same way a beer-swilling demon who loves television and cats will be. The tone is different, the visual palate is different, the set design and creature design is different and even most of the creative team will be different. The outcome will be different. So go enjoy the silly, funny Hellboy film but leave Bilbo Baggins at the theater door. He will be there quietly waiting when you get back.