Spanish art, from El Greco to
Goya to Dalí, has had an affinity for the grotesque, the disturbing,
Spanish cinema, from Buñuel on, ditto.
Mexican cinema, while of a different cultural cast,
shares some of the Spanish artistic background, including, especially
in the case of Guillermo del Toro, a fascination with monsters. And
most especially, he has said, for insects, clockwork, dark places, and
Del Toro's best-known works may be the hallucinatory
“Pan's Labyrinth” of 2006, and 2001's “The Devil's Backbone,” a
(relatively) quiet ghost story that has some bloodcurdling jolts.
Both of these are set in the Spanish Civil War, and both have to do
with the importance of fantasy to children who are relentlessly
Having seen both of those movies I was looking
forward to “Hellboy 2, The Golden Army” because del Toro's strong suit,
along with his sympathy for helpless victims, is his visual
imagination.“Labyrinth” in particular was peopled with creatures owing
as much to Hieronymus Bosch (the biggest collection of his paintings is
in Madrid) as to Terry Gilliam.
Monty Python's Gilliam, with his fondness for
overblown fairy tale imagery, may well be another influence on
del Toro – think of David Warner as The Source of All Evil lurking in
his fortress of Ultimate Darkness in “Time Bandits,” or cityscapes
becoming nightmares in “Brazil.”
New York is indeed nightmarish in “Hellboy 2,” with
an elven prince doing naginata practice in a subway tunnel and the
Troll Market bustling under the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.
(“Trolls live under bridges, right?”)
The Elf Prince in question, along with his twin
sister, are the children of the King of Elfland, who agreed to a truce
with humankind just prior to unleashing his Golden Army, which are
4,900 indestructible robots. Now, eons later, the prince wants to start
the war up again because humans haven't honored their side, which was
to keep to the cities and leave the woods to the supernatural critters.
So, since he can't persuade his father, the prince goes all Sophoclean
and kills his dad.
Meanwhile, at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and
Defense over in New Jersey (which is one way you know it's based on a
comic book) Hellboy (and I'm not going to go into his origins) is at
the Honeymoon's End phase with his wife Liz, who literally flames at
him and his cats. Fortunately the rebellion of the mythical world comes
along to divert them, and soon they're in the Troll Market, looking not
very out of place, while they piece together clues and get on the trail
of the Prince, who is on the trail of a crown which...and that's all of
the story you're getting out of me, except to say that it contains
possibly the only tumor ever to get a laugh. In fact, while the
dialogue is full of peppy zingers that raise a chuckle or two, the
story line is unfortunately on a simplistic level, with plot points of
the “Who'd have thought – just what we need!” variety.
As for del Toro's visuals, my main reason for seeing
the movie, I'm happy to say that he frequently delivers, and sad to say
that he delivers too frequently.
There's not much you can do with or to the main
characters, who were established in Part One, and Ron Perlman looks
great in his prostheses and red body paint. He's also as sympathetic as
it's possible for a Son of Satan to be, albeit one who's on our side
There are characters that are awe-inspiring (the
Angel of Death, blind save for the eyes in his wings) and moments of
poetic beauty (as he dies, the Elven-King turns to a statue of ivory)
that recall the earlier movies, but we get much, much more than that.
It's in the peripheral characters that we get to the
point of overkill; from the invasion of tooth fairies (which are pretty
funny, if deadly) to the final attack of the Golden Army (the least
convincing robots since “Transformers”) there is just too darned much
to look at, all tumbled in higgledy-piggledy to the point of producing
that queasy, headachey feeling.
The final confrontation with the robots seems like
twenty minutes (it can't have been that long) of the same scene, over
and over, until it obliterates any concern we have for Our Guys and
made me wish for a flashback to a picnic on the beach.
I fear that del Toro lost control of the proportions
of his imagination when faced with a major Hollywood budget, and major
Hollywood expectations of financial success, and couldn't resist
throwing absolutely everything at the camera. The charm, if I may so
put it, of “Pan's Labyrinth” was that the fantasy was at the service of
a very human story: we cared so much for a little girl who was
fighting Franco's fascists that the creations of her mind became
extensions of our own that we wanted to believe in as much as she did.
This just can't happen when all of the characters are manufactured –
not as Tolkien's are, out of folklore, but out of pulp.
(Memo to composer Danny Elfman: Wagner put in quiet
bits between the brass and tympani. He knew that only Mad King Ludwig
could stand more than ten minutes of the Ride of the
Valkyries without scurrying back to the bierkeller.)
ADDENDUM: A movie I am reviewing only slightly --
I was twelve years old when the first big
Hollywood version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” hit the
theaters, and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.
Pat Boone was just enough of a doofus that I could
see him following James Mason down an Icelandic volcano, and the
special effects, for their time, were spectacular. All the characters
were believable, and when one of the Bad Guys ate Gertrude the Duck, I
felt bad for days.
The special effects for the new “Journey” are mostly
aimed at the new 3D process that you won't see here, so you'll be left
with some dinosaurs out of “Jurassic Park” and a mine-cart ride from
“Temple of Doom.”
But that's okay, because, even without 3D it's a fun
trip, with a minuscule cast (three people) all of whom (Brendan Fraser,
Anita Briem and Josh Hutcherson) are completely amiable, and who almost
make you long for the sequel, where they will, naturally, discover