Hellboy II: The Golden Army (US - BD)
Gabe revels in director Guillermo del Toro's self indulgent super hero epic...
An ancient truce has existed between humankind and the creatures of the fantastic realm for so long that it has passed into human legend. Considering the truce broken, the ruthless Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) takes it upon himself to declare war on humanity. The only thing that stands between the Prince and his goal is the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence and their paranormal SWAT team: Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), under the control protoplasmic mystic Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane). But when their existence is finally revealed to a fearful and judgemental public, the freak team begins to doubt their alliances.
For sheer quantity of per inch imagination on display, I find it difficult to think of any mainstream, theatrical release as successful as Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. This isn’t to say the film is by any means perfect, the best of its kind, or even the best of this year, but it’s exaction of the look, feel, sound, smell and even taste of comic books, paperback sci-fi, animation, and all other forms of pulp entertainment is second to none.
Anyone that has paid attention to the making-of documentaries that so often adorn his DVD releases will notice how involved Guillermo del Toro is with every nook and cranny of the filmmaking process. Beyond directing and writing the screenplay (the guy doesn’t even use a second unit), del Toro is extremely hands on with the pre and post-production processes of his films (I’m sure if he was given an unlimited budget and timeframe he’d do everything but the acting). This (charmingly) obsessive behaviour, and increased studio faith, has lead us to an effects heavy fantasy film that is perhaps even more personal than Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. On top of this, the guy did it for $65 million dollars less than Iron Man, and $100 million dollars less than The Dark Knight.
But Del Toro’s overpowering personality has proven a problem for some viewers, and just as he needs credited for his film’s wonders, the film’s downfalls belong to him as well. Del Toro’s writing has always been strongest in concept and set pieces, and his commanding knowledge of mythology and pulp lore is mind blowing. Hellboy was full of ideas, featured a grand build, then ran out of steam by its third act. Hellboy 2 is even more jam packed with ideas, opens with a sprint, and doesn’t let up. The final effect is more consistent than the first film, but creates such a massive mosaic that the audience often isn’t given a chance to revel in any of the most impressive ideas. Apparently there isn’t going to be a director’s cut this time, but it still feels like a lot of edits have been made in the name of time. Perhaps I just didn’t want the fun to end.
Another possibly problematic personal element is the film’s sense of humour, which is more prominent than any other film in del Toro’s oeuvre (his most personal films to this point have been, at their base, dramatic horror films). I found Hellboy 2 very funny, but the director takes huge chances with the broadness of his jokes, and I’ve heard plenty of dissenting opinions on the subject. Ultimately, it is the huge chances taken in comedy that make the film so memorable, and more than just a sequel, but if the jokes don’t work for a specific viewer immediately, I can see how song breaks and still frame endings would become grating. The character of Krauss (double s) is also a bit of a problem, veering dangerously close to Jar Jar Binks-ish-ness at times. Again, I found the character funny, and think that Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane does a good job voicing him. The character ultimately succeeds in my eyes because I found myself laughing in spite of myself at his worst jokes.
What del Toro does bring effectively to the script is the wide-eyed feel of children’s stories and fairy tales. Minus a few dashes of subtext, and maybe a little bit of violence, Hellboy 2 is, like Pan Labyrinth, a children’s film for smart adults. The characters often explain the ‘science’ of the fantasy around them, but for the most part the wacky elements are taken for granted by the script and characters. In some scenes the awe of the fantasy is pushed, such as the elemental sequence, or the introduction of the Troll Market, but it’s only by keeping the majority of his story rooted in a reality that del Toro is really able to open up when he needs to.
Del Toro’s love stories, and his hero’s moral stances never quite work beyond the efforts of his actors (even behind all that make-up Doug Jones manages to sell Abe Sapien’s pathos), but the tragedy of his villain is genuinely heartbreaking. Cronos, Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth had all already proven that the director could handle the broader tragedy of death, but until now the cause of melancholy has been more or less black and white. Prince Nuada would be the hero in a more simple fantasy film—he is fighting for the rights of a very obviously oppressed people, and unlike even X-Men’s Magneto, it’s really hard to disagree with his hard line stance, even as member of the race of beings he wants to wipe off the Earth. By prevailing the heroes have doomed their own kind. This also anchors the film’s story in a palpable modern allegory, a fact that del Toro himself isn’t too shy to point out on the commentary track, though he doesn’t name any names.
Moving back to the more visceral side of things, Hellboy 2 is set apart from the first film not only by its increasingly impressive design and narrative sense, but its action scenes, which are the best the already impressive director has managed yet. Not only does del Toro manage to create a better sense of geography and editing (no needless shaky cam or confusing camera angles this time), but the fight choreographers, actors, and stunt men manage to get more realistic fisticuffs out of foam rubber suits than I think I’ve ever seen on film. Occasionally a CG character is a little too obvious, but all in all Hellboy 2 features likely the best action of the summer.
Del Toro’s fetishistic love of maniacally fine details was made for high definition, and when he pushes himself to this extreme a fan can’t help but hold his breath for a good Blu-ray disc. I’m happy to report nothing negative about this particular hi-def transfer. Besides the oodles of tiny details and amazing textures, the transfer’s most incredible traits are its voluptuous colour schemes. The colour consistency here is second to very few, creating the solid and clean effect of a four colour comic book page (keep an eye out for black on red combinations). Del Toro’s films usually have a specific pallet in mind, but unlike, say, James Cameron or Ridley Scott, he doesn’t stick as religiously to monotones. Hellboy 2 is mostly made up of golds, reds and auburns, all colours that are often difficult even for high definition to handle without a bit of compression noise, but with a few minor exceptions these warm hues are clean as the proverbial whistles. The human world’s colder colours are unsurprisingly solid and sharp as well, but not quite the shock the warmer colours are.
The only thing keeping me from giving the film a perfect ten is the fact that I watched Ron Fricke’s visual documentary Baraka a few weeks ago, and have since been visually re-calibrated.
Hellboy 2 opens up the world of the comic, and features a far wider array of creatures and set pieces than the first film, which means a wider audio spectrum of creature and action noises. The Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio track does everything it can to fulfil the promise of this wider canvas, including acute element separation, very busy channels (though I don’t have all 7.1 in my home), and penetrating bass that doesn’t overpower the rest of the track. The track’s bombast is no big surprise, but its subtleties are delightful, and rarely become lost even when the sabers are rattling at their most aggressive. During Hellboy’s scrape-ups, amongst the cracks and thwacks of fisticuffs the scream of a cartoon bomb drop finds its way into the background. While childhood Hellboy listens to Professor Bloom’s story of the Golden Army, the brushing his teeth slowly becomes the stomping of marching boots. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the multilayered effect of the Angel of Death’s voice, which overtakes just about every channel on the system.
Danny Elfman’s score is hit and miss, at times a little too Danny Elfman, at other times a little too on the nose jazzy, but there are moments of inescapable beauty too. Apparently at del Toro’s behest, Elfman quotes Bernard Herrmann a whole lot, but to a nice effect (you really can’t go wrong with Herrmann). The DTS track cuts together the brash elements of the score and the effects pretty effectively, but sometimes things are a bit lost, and the score sounds a bit too synthetic.
Guillermo del Toro is, without a doubt in my mind, the best solo commentator in the world. Just as his films have developed, so have his commentary tracks. His Hellboy 2 track is another beautiful addition to the commentary collection, featuring all the same warmth, intelligence, humour, and humility we’ve become accustom to. del Toro’s preparation and timing is second to none, ensuring that he can bring up scene specific facts without ruining the flow of his longer stories. The director also points out a few visual and thematic hints towards a possible third film. The only problem with the track is that it doesn’t come with a pre-printed shopping list, as del Toro’s consistent mentioning of his literary and filmic inspirations whets the intellectual appetite. The other audio commentary is made up of actors, specifically Jeffery Tambor, Selma Blair and Luke Goss. Ron Perlman and Doug Jones are missed, but the participants manage to muster almost a fifth of del Toro’s excitement, even if they are a little on the quiet side.
Del Toro is nice enough to give us a twelve minute tour of the mammoth Troll Market set, which is nice, because there’s way too much on screen during the film to fully absorb the environment, even with the commentary track playing, and the pause button under thumb. There’s plenty of regret in the director’s voice as he gives up a glimpse of all the fine details that weren’t even photographed for the film, but he’s filled with warm excitement when pointing out the tricks of the trade.
Under ‘Production Workshop’ is a look at the amazing wooden puppet stated story behind the Golden Army that opens the film. In his introduction del Toro explains the genesis of the scene, which came out of the film’s lacking budget. The feature itself is a comparison between del Toro’s sketches, Mignola’s storyboard, and the final scene, with optional director’s commentary. The production of this sequence is entirely missing from the making-of section of disc two, so I’m a little disappointed there isn’t more visual information about the wonderful and original sequence’s production.
Next up are six deleted scenes, all presented in hi-def, and all featuring del Toro commentary. The first scene is a quick look at the fate of the auction house visitors via camcorder, the second is an aside with Manning, the third and fourth are extra Liz lines taken just before entering the Troll Market (which add a little sweetness to the scene), the fifth is a longer version of the Prince’s training routine (with music), and the last is an alternate version of Hellboy’s Big Baby gun loading, created with split screen techniques rather than more traditional cuts. In all the scenes total five minutes, not really enough to make a huge difference if an extended cut was in the offering, which it isn’t.
This leads us to an animated comic prologue. This five minute story is really more of an epilogue for the first film than a bridge to the second, concerning the post-mortem fate of Nazi Ninja Kroenen and the whereabouts of Grigori Rasputin. The comic has not been illustrated by Mignola, as I’d expected, but is pretty gorgeous, and the music, sound effects, even acting, are pretty impressive.
The Blu-ray’s interactive extras actually work for me this time around, mostly because the video footage is presented in full screen vignettes instead of PiP. Only the concept art gallery is lost on my Profile 1.0 player. The U-Control extras start with a scene explorer option, which opens the option of three more viewing options for select special effects sequences: a clean plate, a CG layout, and an unfinished CG. The director’s notebook allows for a greater exploration of Del Toro’s ideas via illustration, which has been a standby on the director’s discs for some time now. This disc deepens the option by cutting to a quick interview with del Toro as he explains his ideas in a deeper manner. The set visit option is pretty self explanatory, and again, is not a PiP option.
The comic book builder works, but runs pretty slow. At first this sounds like a pretty lame feature, like the crap that adorns kids DVDs, but the options are pretty vast and the interface easy to use. I wasn’t able to share my page because of a lack in internet connectivity, but I was happy with my results.
Disc one is completed with four image galleries: Creature Design, Mike Mignola Creator Gallery, Production Design, and Production Stills. These are viewable via a slideshow option, or by the traditional point and click method. No Mignola commentary this time, unfortunately.
Disc two is a standard definition DVD, and is mostly devoted to the new two and a half hour making-of documentary entitled ‘Hellboy: In Service of the Demon’. This is a slightly glossier companion piece to the exhaustive documentaries that were featured on the Blade 2 and Hellboy special editions. Once again, the doc is crafted from hours of behind the scenes footage, and does not feature a narrator, which can create a slightly foreboding atmosphere for the average viewer. Fortunately, this doc is sharply edited, and features a few interview segments to keep us from becoming overwhelmed by raw data.
The doc begins with a thirty minute pre-production section, covering mostly creature design and costume production. Here we once again witness del Toro’s incredibly hands-on approach to design. His big rule to designers, besides that they generally followed Mike Mignola’s lead, was to avoid sci-fi looks, even specifically mentioning Men in Black at one point (which the film can draw unfortunate comparisons too). Squeezed between footage of the initial design meeting are dozens of beautiful drawings and paintings, followed by detailed information on actual construction. The production chapter starts with a focus on the actors wearing make-up and prosthetics, then moves onto an interview heavy, on-set section divided by scene, and including focus on the costume design, set design and choreography. Look for cameos from Neil Gaiman and his daughter. The final section of the doc is devoted to the lengthy post-production process, including the ADR process (mostly focusing on Seth MacFarlane), a detailed look at the computer animation process, and a wrap up not from del Toro himself.
del Toro introduces us to the documentary, and the extras in general with a twenty second ‘prologue’ introduction. The DVD finishes out with print and poster galleries, and a DVD-ROM script.
The summer of 2008 was big for comic book movies, and we all have our favourites. Iron Man may be the funniest, Dark Knight might be the best overall, but I personally enjoyed watching Hellboy 2 more than either of them, despite some script problems and a few flat falling gags. It’s this kind of studio backed auteur filmmaking that excites me about the prospects of big budget Hollywood, and state of the art special effects. It’s too bad that Guillermo del Toro is going to be tied up in The Hobbit for the next half decade, because it seems that the more unbridled he is, the more exciting the world of film is. This Blu-ray disc is a perfect addition to any fans collection, even if the best extra is featured on a standard definition DVD. Buy two copies, and maybe we’ll get to see the last chapter of this saga within the next decade.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 11th November 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, and Portugues
Extras: Director's Commentary, Actor Commentary, Troll Market Tour, Deleted Scenes, Production Workshop, Animated Comic, U-Control Options, BD Live, Image Gallery, Comic Builder, Hellboy: In Sevice of the Demon, Trailers, DVDROM Script
Easter Egg: No
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, James Dodd (II), Jeffrey Tambor
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy and Fantasy
Length: 120 minutes
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