I am at partial loss as to why precisely I don’t like the HELLBOY franchise or why I am unenthusiastic at best towards Guillermo del Toro. I’m a geek. I dig fantasy. I dig movies. I dig practical effects. I dig elaborate set pieces. However, apparently, I do not dig geeky fantasy movies with practical effects spread across elaborate set pieces. Or such would be the assumption from my dislike of HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY. The movie, like its predecessor, just does not work for me.
One could effectively argue that del Toro is one of the premiere imagineers working in cinema today. I can see the imagineer in the auteur, you’d have to be blind not too, but when it comes to Hollywood, del Toro is a blowhard storyteller. This is at odds with his non-system films, which are fantastic, elegant, haunting tales. Give the man a budget and a blue screen and all of that goes out the window. But, apparently, I’m the only one who thinks so.
The world that del Toro weaves in HELLBOY is an impressive one, if only for its attempted scope. It is big and gaudy and full of crazy creatures – not unlike a county fair – which is cool and all (even if several sequences in it have a decisive MEN IN BLACK vibe), but why? Why should I care? Hellboy is not all that interesting of a character. Not on screen at least. Great origin, uninspiring existence. I’d even go so far as to say he is kind of annoying.
There is a sequence in HB2 in which the title character and his crew enter the ‘Troll Market’, which is a flea market run by sewer nymphs or whatnots. The initial foray into the market is like a fantasy world wet dream. I was struck with a similar sense of wonderment as that of seeing the Cantina scene in the original A NEW HOPE for the first time. But then del Toro keeps adding stuff in, coming down with a case of Lucasitis. For every one practical effect there are now at least 5 CGI ones. After mere moments, the touch of Tatooine nostalgia fades and the sequence becomes the Cantina as it would have appeared in PHANTOM MENACE.
And that half-baked comparison is my problem with del Toro. The man has a great imagination and he demands from himself he show it all to us. He wants to fight to realize as much as possible with practical movie making, only to concede the extra trappings to CGI. There is almost too much fantasy involved. There is no tangible reality to his world(s), which normally isn’t a problem for a fantasy film, but the story of Hellboy is one that banks on us imagining that Hellboy lives in a variant of our world. A world with Twinkies and traffic jams. But the world of HELLBOY has no immediacy, no threat, no teeth. Apparently the big red guy is about to save the world from a gruesome apocalypse, but there is no corresponding level of tension. There is no cause and effect in HELLBOY, which for me is the minimum requirement for a film to hold logic – even if that logic is one born in fantasy.
Not that an apocalypse has to be brooding the whole time, but at least find a way to massage in some level of anticipation, some doubt that the world may just not be saved. That a human being somewhere may actually lose their life over this whole silly business. But that feeling is wholly absent from either HELLBOY film.
At the time of this posting, HELLBOY 2 is sitting on an 8.5 at IMDb and an 88% at Rotten Tomatoes. Which is fine with me. I can accept that people enjoy the movies more than I do. I’d like to be convinced as to why, though. The problem isn’t just with the Troll Market sequence – [though for the record, SPIRITED AWAY has a similar market sequence that boasts a more tangible sense of reality, of a market lived in and operated by creatures we know nothing of. Miyazaki’s sequence is fleeting, but even then it feels more believable, more real world than all of HELLBOY 2. And his movie is two dimensional hand animation!] – seeing as it runs throughout his many convoluted threads. There is just some barrier that prevents me from getting excited at all about his characters or his world. Del Toro is never content with a minimal reality, so he must constantly make more and more additions until his fantasy world loses focus in all the crowding.
Maybe that is just me though. All those other folk are devouring it. I’ve heard it described as breathtaking on more than one occasion. Considering the slogging film’s pace bordered on putting me to sleep, the only scenario in which I could consider it breathtaking would require me to have sleep apnea.