It must be really cool for Guillermo del Toro to be in a position where he would hold a few more cards in a film's production than he was used to. He'd just come off directing the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth and had directed the first Hellboy film before that, so the second film in the franchise was viewed both as a follow-up to his excellent last film, but also helped bring a few more eyes to this film, which is based on the Dark Horse Comics character of the same name. And now he's off to direct The Hobbit with Peter Jackson? When it comes to creative visions and scope, I'd expect that those two could cure anyone who suffered from ADD, but I digress.
In Hellboy II, del Toro also penned the script with help from Mike Mignola, who not only created Hellboy in print form, but also helped write the script of the first film. The prevailing storyline has to do with Prince Nuada (Luke Goss, Blade II), an underworld member of royalty who resents those on Earth, what they have and how they squander it. Against the wishes of his sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton, The Mutant Chronicles), he decides to kill their father in an attempt to reclaim control of a Golden Army, one that was created and designed to never tire and kill without mercy. The control lies within a crown that is separated between the royals and humans, and the final piece lies with Nuala, who is sequestering herself in a troll market. Enter Hellboy (Ron Perlman, Alien: Resurrection), Liz (Selma Blair, Cruel Intentions) and Abe (Doug Jones, Doom), who get her out of the market and protect her from her brother who wants to take over the world.
For my money though, I liked the secondary storyline, where Hellboy and Liz are trying to figure out their life as a couple. Hellboy was pining for Liz's return in the first film, but he did have a better support structure in that film. Aside from Abe, who seemed a little more detached from Hellboy in the first film, there was also the presence of Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt, Alien), who Hellboy named "Father" for discovering him a half century before. Now, father has been replaced by Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development), who Hellboy bumped heads with in the first film, and whom he respects less now, as Hellboy is frequently spotted in public (a big no-no), even signing autographs for admirers.
With that said, even though Hellboy might be eager to be part of the outside world, the outside world wants no part of him, as a battle in the New York streets illustrates. This is shortly after Hellboy receives a new handler, a German named Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane of Family Guy), whose rules might be a little on the rigid side and is more than willing to point out his character flaws but altogether is supportive of Hellboy and his actions. Still though, part of him is unsure about his new life, and in a slightly poignant scene with Abe, they give new life to "Can't Smile Without You."
And because the film is a del Toro production, it is rife with magical creatures and dazzling effects, creating a world unique to its creator. Trolls masquerading as old Scottish women who are afraid of canaries, other larger monsters that have retractable metal fists, it's all good in the del Toro universe. One could say that perhaps there are too many characters from said universe in Hellboy II. But the fact remains that while Pan's Labyrinth might have been the most warmly received del Toro film, Hellboy II is definitely the most fun, better than its predecessor, and any qualms you have about the portrait that del Toro paints, Hellboy II is comic book fun with a slight nod to character development of a charismatic protagonist.
In 1.85;1 widescreen using the AVC codec, Hellboy II looks damn good on Blu-ray thanks to Universal. Blacks are spot on without crushing, detail in the close shots is excellent, especially when you consider that most of the production features a guy in red latex, and another guy in turquoise latex, but you can pick out details and pores on each of them rather well. Strangely enough though, the same can't be said on those human characters, like Blair for example, who seems a little soft visually and lacking that same relative detail. Along with this, some of the visual effects are soft and slightly blurry in some instances, which is disappointing. Otherwise, the film's color palette, which includes a lot of amber hues to go with Hellboy's red, are reproduced well, without any bleedthrough.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 7.1 soundtrack was a solid effort (thanks in part to del Toro's stated infatuation with the soundtrack?), full of speaker panning and directional activity for most of the film. The "tooth fairy" scene early on in the film shows you how immersive the film attempts to be, and accomplishes this well. The only small quibble I had with the film is just how active it was in the low end. Now, this may sound like I had a problem with the soundtrack's power, but far from it, everything that required subwoofer activity came through swimmingly, every fight scene, every big creature who emerged in the film, and the "Big Baby" Hellboy uses is also perfect. But the smaller sequences probably didn't call for a sub fire, like the sequence where Strauss and Hellboy have a small locker room scuffle, were unnecessarily powerful. In some cases in this film, less could have definitely been more. Otherwise, it doth bring the goods.
Universal gave the world what I believe is the first actually good BD-Live content, namely a recent chat with del Toro. The interface was simple, you had the chat window on the left hand side, the movie would play on the upper right hand side, with the user keyboard underneath to submit the occasional question or two. The movie plays without any lagging and with the DTS HD Master Audio track, and subtitles appear in the movie window if you so choose. It was actually a decent experience, with del Toro discussing a wide variety of topics, including some teasing for The Hobbit, ideas for a third Hellboy, the fact that he's started working on a director's cut of Mimic for DVD, and a few other things (the chat can be accessed on Universal's High Definition site). A similar event with Dark Knight director Chris Nolan is planned for the Blu-ray release, and while they are transparent attempts to get the consumer to buy into Blu-ray and BD-Live, hopefully more things like closer interaction with a film's creators will be pushed heavily and with more frequency in the future.
The rest of the extras on disc one are quite good. There's a cast commentary with Blair, Goss and Tambor that's a little on the underwhelming side. Tambor and Blair like to poke fun at one another, and Goss' presence on the track is close to nonexistent, but they do talk about some production-related material from time to time, and Tambor compares some of del Toro's work to Fellini in a slightly surprising statement, but the track is pretty boring. The other track has del Toro and easily makes up for the cast track, and he goes into tons of detail about when and how he started writing the screenplay, the subliminal overtones of the film and its, well, "ovarian" message, the character symbolism and a little more into their motivations and detail. On top of all that, he points out things on screen that you might not have noticed before, gets into the production details rather heavily and possesses a great deal of recollection about the film, and the film is worth is for this track alone. The U-Control is compromised of several areas; the "Director's Notebook" is 10 minutes of sketches and explanations from del Toro where he explains his inspirations for the monsters in the film, while the "Set Visits" are 12 minutes of fly on the wall discussions of del Toro on set working with the cast and crew. "Schufften Goggle View" is a look at the main computer generated characters with initial footage, animatics and a more finished product, all on screen at the same time the film is playing, while the "Concept Art Gallery" is a picture-in-picture track which include creature drawings next to the finished product. Next up are six deleted scenes (5:04) which are more extensions than anything else, while del Toro walks the viewer through the expansive troll market (12:22). "Professor Broom's Puppet Theater" (5:24) includes a look at the introduction from the film which shows the Golden Army, while an animated comic (5:14) extends the epilogue of the second film. An interactive feature that lets you capture stills from various scenes and put them together in a comic book layout, with captions to boot, follows, and it's a cool little bonus. From there, you've got stills galleries on the production and creature design, along with some production stills.
Disc two, aside from having a digital copy of the film, two stills galleries (under a "Marketing Campaign" section) and a printable copy of the script accessible via DVD-ROM, has a lengthy documentary on the production, entitled "In the Service of the Demon" (2:34:41). After watching a quick 22-second introduction to this piece by del Toro, the documentary covers the production early on in pre-production, when del Toro gathered the creature creation staff in a room without chairs to talk about what he wanted them to accomplish with the creatures. This film is compared to the film in terms of production, set design and other aspects, and del Toro remarks on more than a couple of occasions how big it is, while saying it's not as big as other big-budget summer blockbusters. There's lots of test footage of the made up characters, and many of the creatures were done as practical costumes that actors could perform in. The cast and crew discuss del Toro, and Mignola talks about the material and working with the director. The visual effects team talks about their role in the film and what they attempted to realize with it, and there's a bit of outtake footage thrown into the mix at various times also. Costume design and stunts follow, as loads of rehearsal footage is shown of the fighting sequences and wire work, the troll market is shown in more detail as well, and from there, the Angel of Death character (and Jones' process in getting made up) is covered, and pretty well at that. McFarlane is shown in recording sessions with del Toro and is interviewed about his role and working with the director. The visual effects/post-production team talks about getting their feedback sessions from del Toro by video tape (those sessions are shown quite a bit here) as they talk about creating the Elemental, the Golden Army and a whole host of creatures, and the piece wraps up with final thoughts from everyone. It's a very "fly on the wall" feature, but it's worth watching to see del Toro's process with everyone alone, and it helps reinforce the statement that del Toro is a DVD-friendly director.
Hellboy II is a fascinating extension of the Hellboy comic book franchise, which also intersperses the wide-ranging and dazzling vision of Guillermo del Toro. It is a standalone release, so you don't have to watch the first film to understand the second, and it's full of action and fun as well. The technical qualities are excellent, and the supplemental material covers everything in "soup to nuts fashion." It's definitely a keeper on Blu-ray and one you won't regret buying.