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Investigating the Nazi's flirtations with the occult during WWII, Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) finds himself in the middle of a ceremony where the wicked Rasputin (Karel Roden, "15 Minutes") is conjuring a portal to the otherworld. After thwarting the attempt, the Professor discovers the one tiny detail that managed to pass through the gateway: a demon the troops nickname "Hellboy." Now fully grown, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) works for the Professor at the Bureau for Paranormal Research, fighting evil of all kinds, alongside a fish-man named Abe Sapien (body by Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde Pierce), psychologically frazzled human torch Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), with whom Hellboy is deeply in love, and newbie government agent, John Meyers (Rupert Evans). When Rasputin rises from the dead to complete his mission, Hellboy sets out to stop him, unwillingly becoming a pawn in the villain's plan for world domination.

What keeps any comic book movie adaptation from drowning in pen and ink is character. Character has helped make classics in the genre ("Superman" and "X-Men"), and the absence of it has shown audiences just how bad movies can get ("Batman and Robin" and "Bulletproof Monk," with which "Hellboy" shares almost the exact same villains). "Hellboy" (IMDb listing) is based on a lower-tier book by Mike Mignola, therefore it has more to prove than, say, "Spider-Man." What "Hellboy" has in its corner are heaps of character and backstory to cover; but the film must also provide the spectacle filmmakers believe audiences crave. Guess which side almost always wins?

With "Hellboy," this battle between story and effects is one that is bitterly fought. Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has already wet his whistle on genre films, having guided "Blade 2," "Mimic," and "The Devil's Backbone" to the finish line; here's a director who adores the slimy stillness of the dark, as well as creatures that threaten every step. With "Hellboy," Del Toro gets ample opportunity to play with monsters and battles, armed with heavy creative control and a budget that can, at least visually, support his ideas for the film. What surprised me most about Del Toro is that he takes almost every chance he gets to investigate the characters, to breathe in their various dramas, and allows a chance to spend time in their company. Hellboy is a character of unusual complications, for he is a beast of the damned, yet was raised like a suburban teenager, complete with female crushes, a love for kittens, and candy fixations. Del Toro gives himself time to demystify Hellboy, providing chances for the audience to bond with the character, and time to get used to the idea that we should be cheering on a creature that was ultimately made to ring in the Earth's demise. Funny how those things go sometimes.

Hellboy is beautifully rendered by creature designer Rick Baker, and deliciously played by Ron Perlman, who has a lot of body appliances to play through. While Hellboy's lips don't exactly move, Perlman's own brand of snarky attitude shines through. I'm frustrated that the producers didn't hire a comedian to write some of Hellboy's iconic one-liners (sample: "Oh crap!"), but Perlman gets away with murder because he can bring a personality to life under what looks like about 50 pounds of rubber. His key interplay with Liz is genuinely heartbreaking, bringing a slight twist of pathos to the comic book character realm that only the bravest of filmmakers have pursued.

When "Hellboy" brings out the spectacle side of the story, things fall apart quickly. Reigned in immediately is the intimacy of the drama, and out comes the elaborate CGI and gelatinous gobs of doom. Since the villains haven't been founded with much concentration, Del Toro doesn't earn the right to pay off their apocalyptic plans, leaving the final half hour a stunning bore to sit through. The effects and the nonsensical story (I'm sure this had more depth in the source material) are pushed to the forefront, efficiently suffocating everything that made "Hellboy" great to start with. I would gladly trade the 10 minute fight between Hellboy and a building-sized mass of evil, all-powerful gray jello for 10 seconds longer with his true love Liz, the Professor, or even poor Abe Sapien, who all but disappears in the film's second hour.

Filmfodder Grade: B-

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