Imagine one of the Star Trek crews transported to Tolkien's Middle Earth, or Buffy and her Scooby gang whisked away into the heart of Narnia. That's how Hellboy II: The Golden Army can feel, as you watch a cartoonish-looking, cigar-smoking demon fight gorgeous creatures right out of ancient folklore (and one Miyazaki-esque nature deity). Your reaction to such a contrast -- as fascinating, jarring or downright repellent -- will likely influence your feelings about the latest film from Guillermo del Toro, a sequel to his 2004 adaptation of Mike Mignola's graphic novels. The writer-director's previous film, Pan's Labyrinth, was a favorite of mine, and while Hellboy II doesn't quite measure up to that film's richness of character and story, it is still visually extraordinary.

I came into this film entirely ignorant of the Hellboy universe ... much like with Sex and the City, although it seems bizarre to compare Mignola's characters to Candace Bushnell's. I haven't read the graphic novels and I hadn't even seen the first movie (it was impossible to find a rental DVD of Hellboy in Austin last week, which may bode well for the popularity of the sequel). And yet, unlike Sex and the City, I didn't feel as though I must have missed something in order to fully appreciate the film. Hellboy II gives us virtually no backstory on its main characters, but that's not necessary, as the setup becomes obvious almost immediately. Sure, there were a few scenes where the comic-book fans were laughing and I didn't get the joke, but it didn't bother me and I never felt lost or confused.

Admittedly it's a fairly easy-to-follow storyline. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) are interrupted from their relationship difficulties to join Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and other agents from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, to investigate a force that plans to battle and destroy humankind. The destructors turn out to be ... fairies and elves. Seriously ass-kicking fairies, mind you. Elven prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to summon the indestructible Golden Army, despite the protests from his twin sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), and our paranormal heroes get caught in the middle of this, along with their newest member, Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane).

But beneath all the supernatural trappings, Hellboy II is essentially a love story ... much like Terminator back in 1984. Liz struggles with new factors in her relationship with the big red guy, trying to determine how to deal with them at the same time she's torching evil fairies. The scene that resonates most near the end is not a battle but Liz's evaluation of the strength of her love for Hellboy. Hellboy's ruminations on love are more light-hearted and involve Barry Manilow. The characters' feelings about humankind also entwine with this theme -- in the first movie (or so I'm told), Hellboy wants to integrate himself more with humanity, but in the second movie, he's faced with creatures that are more like himself.

Comic-book movies rarely feature such gorgeous monsters and villains -- and most of these creatures look real and solid, blissfully free from CGI trickery. (Apparently CGI was used sparingly; most of the creatures are triumphs of puppetry and costume.) Some of the creatures have a distinctive style that instantly identifies this as a del Toro movie, like the Chamberlain and a winged creature encountered near the end ...and not just because Doug Jones is playing them, either. I especially liked the killer fairies myself, and the sequence in the troll market is breathtaking.

The characters are great fun to watch, with Perlman's gruff but charming title character leading the pack, and MacFarlane's accent reminding me a bit of Dr. Strangelove. I like my comic-book movies to sparkle with wit and humor alongside the action sequences. The dialogue often falls a bit flat and sounds cliched, but the actors are good enough to keep it from sounding too stale. In addition, at least one plot element was so predictable that when it finally occurred, I couldn't understand why the characters hadn't thought of it earlier, as I'd been expecting it for nearly an hour.

Overall, however, Hellboy II is a strong summer movie, and a sequel you can enjoy without knowing anything about its predecessor. It's worth a trip to the theater to experience the visual richness at its fullest. And fans of Tolkien will appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the way Guillermo del Toro portrays his elves and trolls and fairies, and wonder how that will play when he directs The Hobbit next.

[For another viewpoint on Hellboy II, read James Rocchi's review from LAFF.]