-By Frank Lovece

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An improvement on the 2004 original, which slogged its way through a story less Bam! Pow! than So What?, this second feature based on writer-artist Mike Mignola's Dark Horse Comics hero is a pleasantly old-fashioned, all-ages diversion, and I mean that in a good way compared to the hyped-up pro-wrestling match of The Incredible Hulk and the angsty gothic emo of The Dark Knight. In fact, with its hidden kingdoms, exotic historical artifacts and world-weary secret operatives, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is as retro in its own way as an Indiana Jones adventure—albeit filtered through a 1960s Rat Fink sensibility. Hellboy is a ten-year-old kid's idea of an antiauthoritarian cute-grotesquerie, who beneath his forbidding exterior just wants to hang and have fun—which makes Hellboy II less like a ’30s cliffhanger and more like a ’60s Saturday-morning superhero toon.

Hellboy's backstory, however, is all Golden Age of Comics-style wonderful nonsense (U.S. Army discovers strange young creature during World War II, he's raised by a kindly old scientist), though one character here notes in passing that he appears to be the son of "the fallen one" (not the fallen one, per the comics, but as for the movies, who knows?). As in filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's initial 2004 foray, Hellboy remains an operative of the federal government's secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, based in New Jersey. (Jersey? No wonder they keep it secret.)

Following whatever happened in the last film, Hellboy (a perfect Ron Perlman, in lobster-red prosthetics) remains in slacker-fratboy splendor at his BPRD apartment, which he now shares with pyrokinetic cutie Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a distaff Human Torch minus the flying. Down the hall somewhere is Hellboy's fellow op and best bud, the aquatic and artificially amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, providing Abe's voice as well as body this go-round—and we miss the lively David Hyde Pierce who voiced him last time). New to the crew is Dr. Johann Krauss (John Alexander and James Dodd, voiced by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane in beautifully dry Brian-the-dog mode), an ectoplasmic being contained in a kind of deep-sea diving suit. Jeffrey Tambor returns as bedraggled pencil-pusher Tom Manning, who plays exasperated, antacid-addict den mother to the unruly kids until Krauss comes along.

Speaking of unruly kids, the world has become endangered by a faerie-world prince, Nuada (Luke Goss), bent on collecting all three parts of a crown that had served as a covenant of peace between his world and humans. It also holds the power to unlock an unstoppable automaton army that Nuada will use to conquer Earth for the faerie world. This being the work of the darkly folkloric del Toro, that world is basically Pan's Narnia. In fact, when Hellboy and company explore a realm beneath Manhattan in which goblins, trolls and other beasties-that-go-bump have a marketplace, there's apparently a sale on Pan's Labyrinth puppets. Granted, they're coolly dreamlike puppets for the most part, but you've got to admit, it's a look you might call a case of the DTs.

Nuada is mystically bound to his sister Nuala (Anna Walton), who falls for Abe. Liz can't quite break the news to Hellboy he's going to be a father. There's lots of bang-’em-up brawling with an admirably physical feel, though some of the Lone Wolf and Cub stuff with Hellboy cradling a baby during a fight plays awkwardly and a bit silly. The superpowered ops also don't much help their human counterparts during an opening skirmish. But the film's climax pays off, there's a delightful bit with Hellboy and Abe drowning their girl troubles to the music of Barry Manilow, and parents, take your kids. We all love Iron Man, rightly so, but Hellboy II is the kind of superhero movie they don't make anymore.

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