noconcessions.jpgLike the humans who misjudge or underestimate the big red lug on the big screen, I must apologize to Hellboy. Our first encounter, in 2004, was not a happy one. His debut film lurched about in fits and starts, and was compromised by obvious concessions to make him accessible to audiences, as he had tried to win over his peers by filing his satanic horns down to stumps. It didn’t work, and I yawned over the prospect of the sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

But what a difference four years makes. It’s true that comic book follow-ups, like Spider-Man 2 and Batman Returns, do tend to improve upon the originals: the cumbersome, usually overly reverent and fanboy-ish “origins” are dispensed with, and a more definite tone is established by a returning director who has played a winning hand and is all the more confident the second time out. This is true of the second Hellboy, which for me was the first to show something of the character’s uniqueness. But there is a greater alchemy at work here. With Pan’s Labyrinth, director Guillermo del Toro emerged as a true master of the macabre; that deftness, present but only fitfully visible on Hollywood assignments like Mimic and Blade II, has a transformative effect on this sequel. A movie I thought I’d catch on cable turns out to be one of the best and more satisfying films I’ve seen all year. I’m not worthy, Hellboy.

Given a freer hand, del Toro has made sensible choices. Extraneous human characters are gone or whittled down to size. There is a suggestion that the fantastical ones we spend more time with and come to care more about will free themselves from a plot crutch if the movie gods and demons favor us with a third installment. True, there are some things not even great talent can do. The structure of summer action movies is set in stone, with a whomping event imposed every 20 minutes to so to keep the allegedly impatient audience on its toes. But del Toro has the facility to up the ante, with astonishingly rich and engaged visuals that bear repeat viewings. Where Stephen Scott’s terrific production design, and the masterly art and set decoration, end and the CGI begins I could not tell, so seamless is the work, and the makeup and digital effects are equally fluid. More importantly, the writing, while it has its iffy patches on the comic side, is stronger in emotion, giving the inhuman and grotesque heart.

Let’s just say it: As Hellboy, Ron Perlman rocks. He owns the part. The actor had his Beauty and the Beast interlude on TV in the ’80s, and knows how to play the beautiful and the beastly sides of the character inside and out. His satanic strength is counterbalanced by his love of cats, junk food, and old movies, and we come to learn that his partner, the fire-starting Liz Sherman (the slow-burning Selma Blair), has had more than just a civilizing influence on him. Gruff government overseer Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) shatters their fragile idyll with word of supernatural doings set to sweep Manhattan, and they and gill-man intellectual Abe Sapien (the shape-shifting Doug Jones, cast in two other parts besides) are surreptitiously sent into the field to investigate. But there’s no hiding Hellboy, who lays smack on invading “tooth fairies” and muscles his way into the “troll market” concealed under the Brooklyn Bridge to root out Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who, tired of playing second fiddle to humans who no longer believe in the old myths, plans to loose a golden army of heavy metal warriors on us infidels.

Hellboy II makes believers of us all. The effects, enlivened with little details, are truly special. The cranky tooth fairies are a warm up for the trolls, a delightful misfit mélange. The key mega-sequence, where the understandably vexed Nuada unleashes a plant monster on Hellboy (pictured), has a terrible beauty about it; trying to save a little boy caught in the beast’s leafy grasp, Hellboy has qualms about killing one of his own ilk in the process. The denouement of the scene, which composer Danny Elfman (one of the better scores of the year) lets stand mostly on its own, is eloquently shattering. The only problem with it is that its impact colors the rest of the picture; the army, one of del Toro’s organic/inorganic fusions, is as good as gold, but their function is strictly mechanical. We have had our wow moment, and it lingers. Still, the second time is the charm: Hellboy proudly takes his place in the pantheon of Universal horror movies he watches on TV, and a chastened critic eats his words.

Pat Boone and Gertie the Duck didn’t make the trip, but in 3D—and only in 3D, I hasten to add—the latest version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is modestly entertaining. There’s something to be said for a summer movie that doesn’t try too hard, that sticks to simple, achievable goals. Yet it doesn’t try hard enough. It’s better than the awful trailer appended to last year’s Beowulf suggested, and not much more.

Personal history: I love 3D. My first exposure was the 1982 revival of 1953’s House of Wax, still a classic of the form, and I couldn’t get enough. The highlight was a barker’s bat-and-ball demonstration, an eye-crossing bit of business that has surely befuddled generations who have only seen the film on TV or home video (“why are we spending two minutes on this?”) I saw most of the cheap-thrills pictures that followed during that second 3D boom in ’82 and ’83, thirty years after the first went bust: Comin’ at Ya, Friday the 13th Part III, Jaws 3-D, etc. The otherwise one dimensionality of these efforts (Spacehunter, anyone? Metalstorm? Treasure of the Four Crowns?) ensured the revival’s quick death. But I kept the faith, and my viewfinders, for the odd resurrection, like Hard Candy, a 70’s porno given ersatz 3D processing to allow John Holmes to, well, cum at ya. The things I endure for art.

My interest in the format was rekindled by Film Forum’s many exemplary showings of the better 3D pictures, like the blackly funny Flesh for Frankenstein, with buckets of internal organs and severed heads thrust merrily at the camera. The Manhattan rep house has unearthed interesting B-pictures from 3D’s golden age that probably hadn’t been sprung from the vaults since the craze collapsed. One, the Randolph Scott western The Stranger Wore a Gun, attracted its co-star, Joan Weldon, who had never seen the picture in 3D and was taking a family member interested in her long-ago career (I recognized her in the audience and said hello, thrilled to meet a 3D starlet in 3D.) Most fascinating, though, were the lower-key films that more subtly explored the spatiality of the image. Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder disappoints with its one (good) effect in the homicide sequence, but compensates with compelling multi-plane shots that split the screen before your eyes. In 2D, a picket fence is a picket fence; in 3D, it’s a show-stopper.

IMAX and digital animation have returned 3D to centerstage, and the studios are again counting on it. Beowulf and Robert Zemeckis’s previous Polar Express, with its Triumph of the Will evocation of Santa Claus, were eye-catching, as was the recent U2 concert film, with its tiered set showcased in depth. Journey, the first live-action feature film shot in sophisticated, less orb-straining Real 3D, is a regression to the format’s funhouse roots which, if you and especially your kids have never seen a 3D movie, is not a bad thing. Early on there’s a yo-yo demonstration that’s pure 1953, and it was great fun to see an audience swoon over the oldest trick in the book (“Why are we spending two minutes on this?” I can hear future 2D viewers saying). Movie magic, alas, is in shorter supply elsewhere.

This is a meta-version of Verne’s yarn, which got the deluxe treatment in 1959, with James Mason, Boone, and Gertie deep, deep down in Iceland. The new lead, Brendan Fraser, is a better actor than his well-preserved Encino Man brawn might suggest, but he still has the same career he had in 1999, and this and a third Mummy movie won’t do much to shift the gears. Brooding over the disappearance of his scientist brother, a Verne obsessive forever poking around the nooks and crannies of the globe looking for a way inside, Fraser’s Trevor Anderson, who is facing the closure of their lab, is stuck with his put-upon teenage nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson). Rifling through the pages of Verne’s fantasy, the sullen Sean discovers potential clues to his dad’s whereabouts, and it’s off to Iceland to retrace his steps, with the reluctant help of guide Hannah (Tudors co-star Anita Briem).

Hannah has seen this movie before, what with her father’s “Vernian” tendencies, and so have we. Seemingly fulfilling some sort of No Child Left Behind directive, Sean uses Verne’s book to anticipate the dangers ahead once the trio is stuck below ground, from a mine shaft ride stolen from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (then basically repeated, in a river raft sequence) to the prehistoric beasts that roam about inner Earth’s lagoon. (OK, the science is questionable, but no one much wanted a sequel to The Core.) A Tinkerbell-like “glow bird” that follows the adventurers around is no match for the unflappable Gertie, but the flying piranha fish and accompanying plesiosaurs are lively, and a sequence involving a magnetized rock bridge floating precariously in mid-air genuinely suspenseful. It’s also the only one to make novel use of third-dimensional disorientation. Otherwise, the production, which apes the look of its 50-year-old predecessor, is flatly, and cost-consciously designed, with dim lighting that is an issue with these nouveau 3D films.

I’d forgive the first-time director, special effects ace Eric Brevig, for these lapses if he didn’t blow the third-act appearance of a T-Rex. This should be the Big Moment—but I was in for dino disappointment, with the creature summoned from the depths of time (and someone’s workstation) to chase the heroes (there are really only three characters in the film) and drool on them. Saurian spittle in 3D is a journey away from the medium’s possibilities, which as the 50s and 80s showed have a high churn rate if audiences get bored with what’s being thrown at them. Too many flicks like this and the new wave of 3D films will be out with the tide faster than you can say Parasite — the one where a debuting Demi Moore was stalked by the title beastie across three dimensions.

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