What is it with kids’ films and France? First the Aristocats roost in the celebrated country, then the Rugrats run off to the City of Light. Everyone’s favorite rodent chef became a sensation there, and even a recent revamp of The Phantom of the Opera, featuring an oversized singing flea, offered up picture perfect presentations of Paris. Now, we get Smurfs 2, set in the same locale for no good reason except that everyone in the cast probably wanted a free vacation. While not a complete atrocity like the first film, this is still a weird play on Peyo’s classic little blue characters. In between the family-friendly cursing (“just substitute the word “Smurf” and the MPAA will be A-OK) and occasional lapses into crudeness, we get decent messages about parenting, love, and family.
This time around, we learn of Smurfette’s (Katy Perry) origins. She was made by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria), but Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters) turned her into a good little pixie. Anyway, fast-forward to the day of Smurfette’s birth and she thinks everyone has forgotten her. They are actually planning a surprise party. In the meantime, Gargamel has become a world famous “magician,” using Smurf essence to perform some amazing feats of prestidigitation. Needing more, he makes two new character called Naughties — Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove) — with plans of turning them blue so he can then drain them of their special spirit.
Of course, in order to do this, the sly sorcerer needs the magic formula created by Papa, and only one Smurf knows it: Smurfette. The two Naughties kidnap her and bring her back to Paris where Gargamel is performing. In the meantime, the Smurfs can’t find their birthday girl, and Papa decides to head back to our reality to find her. He brings along Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Grouchy (George Lopez), and Vanity (John Oliver). Naturally, they run into Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) and his wife Grace (Jayma Mays), who agree to help. Also along for the ride are Corndog King Victor Doyle (Brendan Gleeson), who is Patrick’s overly attentive stepdad, and the couple’s infant son, Blue.
For about the first ten minutes or so, there’s hope. Unlike the first film, which dived right into the ridiculous preschool slapstick early on, Smurfs 2 tries to be fun, hip, and contemporary. It’s hilarious to watch the Entertainment Tonight report of Gargamel’s rise to the top and the byplay between the wizard and his smart-aleck cat Azrial has some genuine humor. Azaria even throws in a few asides for the adults in the audience. However, the minute NPH and his more or less unimportant wife show up (Ms. Mays literally has, like, three scenes total), the energy just drops. It doesn’t help that they are introduced via a dopey celebration that sees a group of overprotective parents kvetching about organic, gluten-free, locally-farmed cake ingredients and the plague that is peanuts. It’s an attempt at being clever that is actually cloying in its smug self-satisfaction.
Luckily, the rest of the movie isn’t so strained. Yes, there’s still a massive over-reliance on physical shtick, but this time, it’s more cartoony and less threatening. Equally winning is the work of the voice actors, including Perry, Ricci, and an almost unrecognizable George Lopez. Of the humans, Gleeson delivers the goods. Since it is clearly aimed at the Nick Jr. set, and offers nothing more scatological than a single Smurf poot, Smurfs 2 earns an award for knowing its demo and not talking down to it. Instead, it hopes the wee ones will root for these scrappy little critters and learn a lesson in the process.
Perhaps Smurfs 3 should do away with the humans all together and stick with the characters everyone knows and loves. When they take control of the movie, Smurfs 2 succeeds. When they don’t, it dies.