After Schindler's List won seven Oscars, Steven Spielberg could've made whatever artsy, fancy-pants picture he wanted. Instead, dude turned around and made a sequel to Jurassic Park. In other words: "Thanks for the paperweights, guys, but know what I really like? Dinosaurs smashing stuff." Mexican director Guillermo del Toro found himself in a similar spot in 2006, when his acclaimed fantasy fable Pan's Labyrinth wowed arthouse crowds all over the world. Suddenly, del Toro found himself able to do pretty much whatever he wanted—and it turns out all he wanted was to revisit Hellboy, his 2004 comic book flick. For the record, The Lost World: Jurassic Park didn't win any Oscars, and Hellboy II probably won't either, but fuck it: That's not the point.
The point, rather, is fun: In any other movie, it'd be a sign that things had gone seriously awry if a red demon and a blue talking fish got together, drank too much Tecate, and started slurring out a drunken duet, but in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, it kind of makes sense. About the only way I can describe Hellboy II is as an "epic-fantasy-action-comedy-romance": It's got parts that are awe-inspiring; its lush, bright colors are beautiful; and there are some kickass action scenes. There's also some clumsy comedy and a few ham-fisted emotional beats, but when the whole is this bizarre and cool, it's hard to complain.
The plot picks up from the first film: Friendly demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman) protects humanity from even worse monsters. He's assisted by his pyrokinetic love interest, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair); the aforementioned talking fish, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones); and, this time around, ectoplasmic bureaucrat Johann Krauss (voiced, surprisingly well, by Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane). These characters are taken from Mike Mignola's excellent comic books, though del Toro's traded in Mignola's ominous, gothic horror-tinged tales for something far poppier: Like B-team ghostbusters, del Toro's versions of Mignola's characters crack wise and ham it up while they battle evil, which in this case is embodied by Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), a pissy elf who's threatening to wipe out mankind.
It's pulp, sure, but it's seeing what del Toro does with it that's so goddamn cool. Here, rotting trolls disguise themselves as bag ladies and feast on stray cats beneath the Brooklyn Bridge; tooth fairies are sadistic little fuckers that burrow into your flesh and gnaw through your bones; and Lovecraftian monsters rise out of sewers, pushing aside cars with flailing tentacles. Visually, Hellboy II is astonishingly dense and inventive, but in its best moments, it also boasts an eerie nostalgia: There's the feeling that we're living in the hollow remnants of a mysterious time that's long since passed, one that Hellboy's characters—and, it seems, del Toro—yearn to return to. And then there'll be a scene with Hellboy and Abe getting drunk.
And there's the biggest problem with both of del Toro's Hellboy flicks: The tone swerves back and forth, from goofy comedy to wide-eyed fantasy to maudlin melodrama. Sometimes Hellboy II is amazing and strange, and sometimes it's stilted and silly—but as a whole, it's consistently entertaining, it feels like nothing else out there, and it's a film no one but del Toro could've made. Next, he'll be taking over for Peter Jackson: del Toro will be helming two Hobbit movies, due out in 2011 and 2012. After Hellboy II, that seems like an awfully long wait to see what he'll come up with next.