Maccewill Yip takes the opportunity of re-viewing Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army to check out its predecessor for the first time.
Although some of the movies I review were ones I wanted to tackle thematically, there are some I do simply as an excuse to force myself to rewatch a movie I’ve been telling myself to revisit, but never got around to. So when Hellboy II: The Golden Army came up, it was actually a two-fer because it would also force me to watch the first one, which I had never actually seen and had been meaning to watch.
I probably should start by saying I have a complicated admiration for Guillermo del Toro. I love his films, but I haven’t seen all of them, as I would like to. The first one I’ve watched was his first film, Cronos, a VHS copy I checked out from the library as a kid. Although I didn’t fully understand it then, I knew there was something interesting about it. It wasn’t until years later that, out of curiosity and hearing it had great reviews, I went to see Pan’s Labyrinth in the theater with a friend and was surprised by its mix of fantastical elements and its brutal violence. I looked online and found del Toro’s name and was surprised to learn that not only had he directed Cronos, but also some Hollywood films, including Hellboy. I had been interested in watching Hellboy since I skimmed through the comic when I was in high school, but never had a chance to watch it. When the second movie came out, I thought this was my chance to watch the original, but instead I ended up going straight to Hellboy II and leaving the first unwatched until now. But before getting into any impression of the first film, I should actually do the review for the movie I’m supposed to do: Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
I was initially surprised by how much I had forgotten from the film. I remember the lovely, almost stop-motion style story about the war between men and elves, and the moment between Hellboy and Abe Sapien singing together. There were some parts that I was reminded of during the rewatch, like King Balor turning into alabaster after dying, and that awkward, “comedic” reveal at the end (more on that later). But then I remembered that when I first watched the film, it was on my laptop and I might have had some distractions while watching it. Oops. So yeah, this is probably the first time I’ve actually really watched Hellboy II, without any distractions.
Overall, I enjoy this film. I like how it’s able to shift tonally from Christian and mysticism imagery of the first film, to a more mythic, folkloric style in this one. The characters are fun and feel more of an ensemble. The story was a new work, not based on an existing story in the comics, but a collaboration between Del Toro and Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. Still my favorite part, both in my first viewing and this, was that moment I mentioned earlier where, drunk and in different stages of love, both Hellboy and Abe Sapien sing Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You,” probably because I’m more of a sucker for small, intimate scenes than the big spectacle. The character and creature designs are interesting, including the tumor baby, which reminded me a little of Kuato from Total Recall.
But the film is not without its problems. A main one is that, as great as the characters are, some of them that should be vital to the plot are not shown enough, and there is not enough between certain characters to develop their relationship better. A good example is Abe Sapien, where there were not enough moments between him and Princess Nuala to show how he can justify being willing to sacrifice the world for her life. Another is the interactions between Hellboy and Prince Nuada, not in the fights, but when Nuada is making the argument that Hellboy should be on his side with the other supernatural beings and not on the side of humanity that fear and distrust him. There’s the relationship between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, which we get a good amount of time with, but we hardly see much of Liz’s side except for a couple of quick moments, so she ends up being portrayed more like the stereotypical grumbling girlfriend. Also, although I admit this is personal because I am a big fan, I would’ve loved to have seen more John Hurt. If we had just a few more moments with these characters to allow them to breath and be a little more well-rounded, this would be a better film. But instead, we got more of the antagonism between Hellboy and Tom Manning, which was already addressed and should had been mostly resolved in the first film.
As well as more time with characters, it would have been fun to visit more of the fantastical locations. Guillermo del Toro is so great in creating incredible visuals like the Troll Market and the underground lair that houses the Golden Army that I wanted to see more of them. It was this and Pan’s Labyrinth that had initially made me excited for the live-action The Hobbit before I was crushed to find out he eventually had to drop out of the project.
Then there is the scene with the Angel of Death. I like the scene a lot, especially the design of Death, but it feels awkwardly inserted for two reasons. One is how on their journey to find and stop Prince Nuada, they just happen to meet the being that can save Hellboy from dying in the same general place as the Golden Army. Second, it felt like an obvious set-up for what would have been the third movie. It almost felt like the couple of clumsy Justice League set-ups in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, I do like how this scene and how it shows Liz’s love of Hellboy and wanting to save his life despite how it would eventually lead to the end of the world, parallels with the same decision Abe makes moments later.
And then there’s that reveal at the end of the film when Hellboy is surprised to find out he is not going to have one, but two babies. Now, I don’t mind a good comedic bit of ending in films, but there’s something that irked me about how it was done here. It feels like an end to an episode of a sitcom, like it was waiting for a laughtrack over Hellboy’s shocked face.
So here’s the thing, I’ve now watched the original Hellboy, and although it has a slightly tighter story structure, and there is more focus on some of the character relationships, and it has more John Hurt, I still kind of prefer the second film. One of the reasons is that I’m personally not that invested in the whole Nazi search for grand paranormal advantages to win the war/world conquest trope. I have my fill of that entertainment from Indiana Jones. And having Rasputin on top of that just makes it feel doubly ridiculous to me. The second film, on the other hand, does one of my favorite things: the playing around or subversion of the archetypes of fairytales. The other thing is that the special effects of the first film did not age well. Although The Golden Army had its own CGI eyesores (the uncanny valley baby that Hellboy is juggling is almost as creepy as the one in Twilight), there were some parts of Hellboy that I was watching and thought, “That could have easily been done and look better with practical effects.” One part is when Rasputin rises from the pool of blood. Although at the end of the scene it’s actually the actor covered in fake blood, the initial formation and rise from the blood looked like it was computer generated. The worst one, though, was the eyes of Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, where it just looked like someone copied and pasted GIFs over his face. The effects in the second movie are not perfect, but they’re infinitely more passable than the ones in the first.
Widening the discussion, the Hellboy franchise fits with some of del Toro’s other films, at least the ones I’ve seen. He tends to make films with horror elements that, though frightening at first, usually end up being ones that help or need help from the protagonist, like the ghosts from The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak or the Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water. I saw an interview with Adam Savage where you can see influence of this from two movies that he says usually informs the films he makes: James Whale’s Frankenstein and Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. His protagonists are usually outsiders, like Hellboy or Blade. There is also the theme that, even with some of the most terrifying creatures in the supernatural worlds he creates or adapts, it is usually humans themselves that are the true monsters, and usually the most brutal, as seen in Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water. This is not so obvious in the Hellboy series, other than Rasputin and probably the people that couldn’t accept Hellboy and the other members of BPRD. However, it seemed like there were moments that foreshadow this direction, especially in The Golden Army, where Prince Nuada gave his dying words to Hellboy:
“The humans, they will tire of you. They have already turned against you. Leave them. Is it them or us? Which holocaust should be chosen?”
With those words, and with the knowledge from the Angel of Death that Hellboy would bring about the end of the world, we got a hint of what could have been the third film.
As lucky as Guillermo del Toro is with his career, especially recently winning Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, I still feel bad for some of his long-gestating passion projects that were eventually taken out of his hands. The most public was the two years of energy dedicated to making The Hobbit, only to end up having to drop out and have Peter Jackson take over. The Hellboy franchise is very much his pet project. Over his career he had turned down many other films just so that he can work on the series, including Halo, I Am Legend, One Missed Call, AVP: Alien vs. Predator, and two Harry Potter films (Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince). So it’s no surprise that over the years he has been trying to make Hellboy III to complete his trilogy. After renewed inspiration from Ron Perlman made-up again to be Hellboy to meet a terminally-ill boy for the Make-A-Wish foundation, he went through a five-year developmental hell spiral of going through studios, producers, social media, and even Mike Mignola, without any luck. And now the prospect is completely dead as the studio decided to reboot the whole thing with Neil Marshall, with David Harbour set to play the lead.
Going through the Hellboy series has been interesting. Of the films I’ve seen of del Toro’s, they are certainly the lightest ones (still haven’t watched Mimic, Blade II, and both Pacific Rim). It has a witticism about it that could have continued today, with the direction Marvel gone recently with Thor: Ragnorok and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It’s been fun picking up on del Toro’s style, especially trying to discern what was his and what was Mignola’s ideas in The Golden Army. I definitely wished that he had gotten to do the third film to complete the trilogy. And as much as I like David Harbour in Stranger Things, it will be very hard to compete with Ron Perlman’s near perfect take as the big red demon.
– It’s been awkward seeing Jeffrey Tambor in this series and going through old and new Arrested Development in light of the recent sexual harassment allegations against him.
– Especially with the first film, I just remember how much I miss John Hurt, who I had admired since watching him host Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.
– Is it me, or does Ron Perlman/Hellboy look a little smaller and skinnier in the The Golden Army than he did in the first film?
– Seeing the larger scale creatures with tentacles reminded me of another film he was trying to get off the ground, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.
– The too on-the-nose clip of Bride of Frankenstein: “We belong dead.”
– Either del Toro likes it a lot, or Tecate paid a lot for product placement.
– Is it just me, or was it obvious to others early on that the cylinder, not the paper, was the map to the Golden Army?
– Wait? Liz could have just melted the crown? Why didn’t she just try to melt it from Nuada’s hands or head?
– From the IMDb trivia: “Ron Perlman was offered the role of Piccolo in Dragonball: Evolution (2009), but turned it down in favor of reprising his role of Hellboy.” I think he might have made the right decision.
– So not only was there supposed to be Hellboy III, but there were plans for an Abe Sapien spin-off. I guess that ended up being The Shape of Water.
– And now I’ll have Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” stuck in my head for a while.