The first "Hellboy" movie had a modest complement of featured creatures — an undead madman, a mechanical Nazi, a pack of stygian beasties. Now, in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army,""Hellboy II: The Golden Army," the mutants have taken over the menagerie, and everybody's favorite big red guy finds himself surrounded by Hulk-like crushers, two-headed geeks and even the odd antler-man, along with more traditional (if not traditional-looking) goblins, trolls and mummies, and, inevitably, a humongous tentacled monstrosity in a very bad mood. Some of these characters seem a bit arbitrarily fantastical (a guy with an urban skyline sprouting out of his head?), but others, like a looming Angel of Death, have a hideous majesty. Herded together, however, they have the effect of nudging Hellboy himself out of the sleek sci-fi world of the first movie and into the more free-form imaginative environs of director Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning 2006 film, "Pan's Labyrinth." How "Hellboy" fans will feel about this shift may depend on how they feel about that picture. (I wasn't an unstinting enthusiast myself.)

Still, "Golden Army" is the work of a master filmmaker operating with unbridled invention, and even in an age of digital overkill, it doesn't look much like any other movie (although the director has included fond nods to such fantasy touchstones as "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Alien," the first "Star Wars" film and the vintage stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen). Del Toro wrote the script from a story he cooked up with Mike Mignola, creator of the "Hellboy" comics, and the narrative has some beguiling touches. For one thing, it is in large part a love story. (There's even a Barry Manilow moment!)

The setup provides a quick bridge from the first film. Hellboy (Ron Perlman, a lovable grump once again) is still employed at the secretive Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, alongside fiery Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and fishy Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). He and Liz are having romantic difficulties, but those are put on hold when an alarm summons the team to a Manhattan auction house that has unwisely offered up for bids a remnant of an ancient crown of unknown provenance. This artifact (magical, it turns out) has drawn the attention of amber-eyed, platinum-haired Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), an unfriendly emissary from a hidden fantasy kingdom that has been at peace with the world of humans for, well, a really long time. The young Nuada is in a war-mongering mood, and against the argument of his less-hotheaded twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), he's intent on reassembling the scattered pieces of the crown in order to resurrect the now-dormant Golden Army, an "unstoppable tide" of infernal behemoths, and lay waste the aboveground world.

The encounter at the auction house between Hellboy's team and Prince Nuada and a swarm of his fearsome minions is one of several long and intricately choreographed battle sequences in the movie, each one a marvel of design and execution, and laced with lively jibes. ("You will pay!" a bad guy barks. "Yeah?" says Hellboy, unimpressed. "Do you take checks?") It's too bad that Prince Nuada, with his familiar, hyperkinetic martial-arts moves, isn't a more commanding villain, and that the clumping Golden Army, when we finally see it, doesn't have a little more digital zing. Still, there's an interesting new team member named Krauss — an ectoplasmic entity given presence by a sort of mechanized diving suit — and a multitude of wildly colorful anomalies milling around in a vast "troll market" under the Brooklyn Bridge. And the scene in which a colossal stone god rises up out of the ground has the mesmerizing beauty of myth made nearly real.

"Golden Army" runs less than two hours, but the extended battle sequences, especially toward the end, make it seem a little too long. The picture has a unique, warm glow, though. Liz and Hellboy's relationship is presented in a newly detailed way that makes us anxious for it to work. Abe Sapien has a touching crush on a very special lady, and even the vaporous Krauss turns out to be a love man of sorts. The movie's heart is in all the right places.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "August," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."

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