Consider Guillermo del Toro a cuddlier, friendlier Clive Barker — just as fascinated by monsters’ anthropology and physiology, but far more interested and involved in their search for solace.

Even the fastest eyes will need more than one viewing to catch every creature in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Far superior to its predecessor, and more confident, this sequel is a field guide to del Toro’s fertile brain. Using tactile, tangible puppetry unrivaled since Jim Henson’s heyday, it’s a fabulous, freaky immersion into a world of skin, hair, teeth and bones that aren’t our own.

A beast playing bagpipes that burrow into its belly. An amputee goblin who’s fashioned himself into a pushcart. A baby that’s … not a baby. “Tooth fairies,” which are literal bone grinders who leave no bodies because there are no leftovers. Because few of these characters were created in a computer, their appearance is flawlessly realistic, and even the CGI creations have a style and soul.

Yet just because this monster menagerie is filled to capacity doesn’t mean that, like the worst of George Lucas, there’s just no point to them being there. Or that it has no room for its title character.

Certainly, there’s a stronger focus on Hellboy. Ron Perlman returns as the beer-swilling, kitten-loving, curmudgeonly demon with a right hand of stone, horns, beet-red skin and a tail. Given more screen time, Perlman’s ragged, raw approach is even more of a comic scream.

Working with Hellboy comic creator Mike Mignola, del Toro uses Hellboy’s uniqueness to craft a story that has stronger dimensions than the X-Men-tality of making humans love the oddballs. The oddballs — including returnees Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Hellboy’s pyro-powered girlfriend, and Abe Sapien, his sidekick merman pal — strive only to love themselves.

It’s not just cute to see an 11-year-old Hellboy in a 1955 prologue. (His World War II origins are recapped for those new to the party.) Instead, del Toro establishes motifs of mood and plot — the wonders of bedtime-story imagination and fatherly obligations.

From his “dad” (John Hurt), Hellboy hears a tale of the Golden Army — a squad of soldiers long ago forged by goblins and commanded by elves to take down mankind. After seeing the army’s merciless destruction, elves and men formed a truce, and the army rested dormant below the earth.

Flashing forward, that “story” provides a basis for Hellboy’s latest assignment as a pointman for the U.S. government’s shadowy Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development.

Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), an elf long banished for seeking to resurrect the golden army, has plotted to collect three pieces of a crown that will control them. His goal: Stamping out humans who can’t appreciate the wonder of another world.

After badly blowing the BPRD’s cover while seeking Nuada, Hellboy is monitored by new agent Johann Krauss. He’s a German-accented glob of ectoplasm that corrals its senses by wearing what looks like an outmoded scuba suit to shoot smoky spectral air from his suit’s nipples and fingertips.

Or, as Hellboy puts it, a “gashole.”

Johann is like an Aqua Teen Hunger Force character that’s waded over from Adult Swim, and he’s a perfect fussy foil for Hellboy. (That is, once you get over Seth MacFarlane hijacking Johann’s tone from Dee Bradley Baker’s Klaus the fish on the MacFarlane-produced American Dad.)

Predictable plot developments are smoothed over with dramatic conviction, the film’s Men in Black touches back at BPRD headquarters fall flat and it’s hard to believe one rogue mission could ever get off the ground.

But del Toro shrewdly raises the stakes for each character, both in their fight against Nuada and in their humanity. It crystallizes with a riotous scene, perfectly played, as two of the heroes drunkenly commiserate to the sounds of Barry Manilow.

Nitpicking fanboys will note borrowed touches from Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Maxx and even Del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth. But del Toro shows no reluctance to relax with his creativity. How could he when it’s such an instinctive reflex?

The New York “troll market” is a wondrously dingy delight. Hellboy’s city-block grapple with towering tree-god Elemental throws some poignancy into its pounded pavement. And the ending — showcasing the large, lurching foundries that are the Golden Army — is as elegant as it is exciting.