On one level, it’s silly to get annoyed by a drooling mediocrity like The Smurfs 2. Designed mostly to keep six-year-olds distracted, the movie is harmless, disposable and utilitarian: It would make as much sense to expect art from this de facto babysitting tool as it would be from your kid’s stroller. But while it was hardly great, the first Smurfs was not without its charms, dispensing syrupy life lessons with a bit of a wink courtesy of Neil Patrick Harris’s sharp-yet-sincere lead performance. Two years later, the follow-up simply goes through the motions. Art was never in the cards, but even basic competence is up for grabs this time around.
tBased on the comics of Belgian artist Peyo, The Smurfs 2 (like its predecessor) takes us to the mystical animated land of Smurf Village, where wise old Papa Smurf (voiced by the late Jonathan Winters) watches over a cacophony of personalities, including the narcissistic Vanity (voiced by John Oliver), grumpy Grouchy (voiced by George Lopez) and befuddled Clumsy (voiced by Anton Yelchin). But when Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) begins to worry that her friends have forgotten all about her birthday—actually, they’re just planning a surprise party—she wanders away from the village and walks right into the trap of the Smurfs’ longtime nemesis, the wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria), who has created a portal that transports her into our live-action world and into his clutches.
Thus sets in motion a rescue mission led by Papa that sends the Smurfs to Paris, teaming up once again with their human friends, Patrick (Harris) and his wife Grace (Jayma Mays). But returning director Raja Gosnell doesn’t so much assemble a narrative as he establishes a collection of slapstick sequences interspersed with teachable moments. This structure isn’t that much different than the original movie’s, which at least got some comic mileage out of no-nonsense Patrick’s disbelief at these tiny, obnoxiously adorable little blue critters running amok in the human world. But The Smurfs 2 doesn’t even have mild fish-out-of-water humor to give it some oomph: Instead, there are jokes about Facebook.
Because it’s pitched to tykes, The Smurfs 2 is unsurprisingly obvious in its gags and sentimentality. The major concern is less whether Papa and his fellow Smurfs can save Smurfette but, rather, how they can convince her that she’s not really an outsider. (A preamble informs us that Smurfette was actually created by Gargamel as a way to infiltrate Smurf Village and acquire their magical Smurf-essence, which powers his terrifying spells. But Papa turned her good, although she still feels like an orphan.) And so we get comforting, incredibly bland messages about acceptance and family, hammered home by Smurfette becoming friends with Gargamel’s two new creations (voiced by Christina Ricci and JB Smoove), who are misfits just like her. But there’s not much subtlety to that emotional manipulation, which is paired with Patrick coming to terms with his kindly stepfather (Brendan Gleeson), a man he’s never warmed up to, preferring his birth father who left him when he was just a kid.
Beyond Azaria’s unashamedly wacked-out portrayal of the cartoonishly evil Gargamel, you won’t find much that’s especially nervy or, frankly, memorable about this sequel. Where once Harris and Mays had a sweet rapport, they’re now mostly on the sidelines, pushed aside by Papa’s exceedingly irritating supporting Smurfs. Yelchin is somewhat tolerable as the kindhearted, dopey Clumsy, but Oliver’s preening, pretentious Vanity and Lopez’s hyper-negative Grouchy are total drags to be around. Even Smurfette just seems like a spoiled drama queen, some clueless Hollywood exec’s assumption of what a tween girl must be like. Sure, The Smurfs 2 is a movie meant for kids, not adults. That’s no excuse for it being terrible.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Raja Gosnell
Writers: J. David Stern, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Karey Kirkpatrick (screenplay); Peyo (characters and works)
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Katy Perry, Hank Azaria
Release Date: July 31, 2013