Don't let the trailers fool you—Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a melancholy movie. While the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is out there protecting humanity from the magical entities that threaten it, the same cannot be said for those magical beings requiring protection from us. And on that hinge pivots the entire movie. In a delightful prelude to the modern portion of the movie, a young Hellboy is told Christmas stories by Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) involving the ancient treaty between the elves and man. The elves had joined with the trolls and gnomes to create the Golden Army, a mechanized militia that fought with magical rapacity. That army had proved to be too destructive for the elven king and so he had crafted a treaty by which mankind would get the cities and the elves the forest lands with the Golden Army looming as a threat to see that the treaty was held to. Of course, over time, mankind has encroached into the country and the crown that controlled the army was lost from its original holders. Dissatisfied, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) vows to release the Golden Army, and the BPRD stumbles into his plan when they arrive on the scene of an auction that has been destroyed by tooth fairies.
What follows is an examination of the magic missing from the typically human life. Liz (Selma Blair), Abe (Doug Jones), and Hellboy (Ron Perlman) find themselves fighting the Prince, whose intentions they don't entirely disagree with. Recently outed to the media, the BPRD are at first figures of fancy to the public, but they rapidly become centers of derision ultimately because they look different than humans. Liz attempts to act as a mediator for a little bit, but she finds herself on the side of her friend and lover. (About that—there's nothing graphic in the relationship between Hellboy and Liz, but the screenplay makes it clear they have issues, and they seem to be based a good bit on Hellboy's immaturity. I found the idea of them having a physical relationship off-putting precisely because he doesn't appear emotionally ready to have one—for sure, he loves Liz, but he isn't willing to adapt his habits to sharing his life with another person.) And all the while, the BPRD finds itself visiting fantastic lands and battling magical creatures on the verge of extinction due to mankind's greed. Nuada acts as Hellboy's bad angel, telling him how he should go over to the elvish side.
At the same time, Abe finds himself falling in love with Nuala (Ana Walton), Nuada's twin sister, and must balance his role as humanity's protector against the growing emotional attachment he feels for the elven princess. Nuada tries to thwart her brother's plans, but it does not appear to be out of it being wrong, but because it was the plan their father put together. All of the complex connections are brought to the surface in a huge battle between the BPRD and a plant elemental that Nuada releases in Brooklyn. Even in victory, the BPRD loses in unexpected ways.
Hellboy II contains all the stunning effects and costumes that mark it as a Guillermo del Toro film. The troll market is beautiful in its ugliness, and owes a great deal of debt to places like China Mieville's Un Lun Dun and the market in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (not the Star Wars cantina as some critics have suggested). That debt to earlier sources is a straight line to old myth and legend, and drawing those comparisons again pulls on the melancholia that surrounds the movie. The troll market is a place of wonder and magic…and it is located in the sewer of New York. The creatures are gorgeous and outrageous all at once, and yet sad in some ways.
And despite the paragraphs above spent describing the tense conflict between man and magic, old and new, the real conflict really does mostly live in the background of the movie. Most movie-goers will get lost in the action sequences and the stunning effects, and so miss the conflict at the heart of the movie. Even when the prophecy of Hellboy eventually destroying all the world is repeated, there are no overt references to the battle that Hellboy and his team are currently fighting and the warring emotions within them. Only upon reflection does that scene's real effect become clear. And, unfortunately, the overt conflict of the movie ends predictably, the resolution of the crisis foreshadowed I heavy-handed fashion. But del Toro makes it beautiful and magical, mired as it is in movie cliché.
One other highlight of the movie is Seth MacFarlane's voicing of Johann, the newest member of the BPRD. His voicework with his cartoon series makes him memorable in the voicework required for animating a bag of gas (literally). He has most of the humor in the movie, and achieve solely through his voice, with a single slapstick moment when he animates a locker room. But even that scene, evoking the laughter of the people in the audience, has more serious ramifications, lost in the laughter at the Three Stooges antics.
There's a lot going on in Hellboy II and I recommend it, because it is a beautiful film. But the denouement doesn't really resolve much of anything, and the hope that is offered Hellboy by Liz is symbolic of how to resolve the underlying conflict in all the characters. It can easily be argued that, while humanity wins and thus the movie is a comedy in the Greek sense, mankind loses overall. It is on that winsome fulcrum that the movie leaves us, obviously leading to a third movie. But given the set-up, it will take a truly magical feat to resolve in a fully satisfying fashion.