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.