(by Dustin Putman
2011's "The Smurfs" tends to get negatively lumped in with other similar live-action/animated feature adaptations like 2004's "Garfield" (and its 2006 sequel, "A Tale of Two Kitties") and 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" (and its respective follow-ups, 2009's "The Squeakquel" and 2011's "Chipwrecked"), but whereas those were calculated, pre-packaged, scattershot efforts that alienated now-adult fans of the 1980s cartoons they were based on, the Raja Gosnell-directed tale of a land of little blue men (and one girl) actually did succeed at capturing the charm of—and creating the proper nostalgia for—its source material. Lightweight as it was, "The Smurfs" also offered some shrewd writing and a certain amount of sincerity to help balance the tone. The film was jokey without making a mockery of itself, and sweet without becoming saccharine. "The Smurfs 2," directed again by Gosnell (2008's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua"), tries to repeat the same formula, but, as so often is the case with sequels, merely rehashing what was done before while altering the setting is not enough for lightning to strike twice. Amazingly, a quintet of screenwriters had a hand in this unoriginal movie's construction—J. David Stern, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and new-to-series fifth writer Karey Kirkpatrick (2008's "The Spiderwick Chronicles")—leading one to wonder whether a single scripter would have helped the finished product or resulted in a blank screen. Article continues below
Ever since Papa (voiced by the late Jonathan Winters, in his last role), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Smurfette (Katy Perry), and the rest of the gang safely made their way back home to Smurf Village following an interdimensional adventure to New York City, things have returned to normal for the land of tiny, four-fingered blue people. As Smurfette's birthday nears, she begins to suspect that everyone has forgotten her big day (in actuality, they are preparing a surprise party). Insecure and vulnerable, she is lured once more through a magical portal by two of mischievous wizard Gargamel's (Hank Azaria) bad-influence creations, called Naughties, Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove). Created unlike her male counterparts in a lab, Smurfette is the only one who knows the secret formula for Smurf-essence. By dragging her over to the dark side, Gargamel hopes that the formula will finally be his key to ruling the world. Hot on their tails, Papa, Clumsy, Grouchy (George Lopez) and Vanity (John Oliver) rustle up their human friends, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays), and head for Paris to save Smurfette and put a stop to Gargamel's devious plans.
Though there are a few—a very few—deviations from its predecessor, "The Smurfs 2" is a lackluster continuation, both overly familiar and not nearly as clever or fresh as the first pic. In place of Clumsy feeling like an outsider, this time it is Smurfette who is worried that she isn't accepted by her Smurf family. Relatively new father Patrick is still having doubts about parenting, this time with the appearance of a semi-estranged stepdad, Victor (Brendan Gleeson), who wants to be a part of his son and grandson's lives. Naturally, the wise Papa Smurf gives him advice during a nighttime heart-to-heart on a balcony—just like in the earlier film. Gargamel and cat Azrael are still plotting against the Smurfs, but what once was a tempestuous but affectionate relationship between the two is now strictly mean-spirited, with Azrael constantly laughing and making fun of Gargamel's pitfalls and Gargamel abusing Azrael by tossing him out the window of moving transportation and pulling him from behind as the CGI-assisted feline whines and screams in pain. Is this material meant to be funny?
Beyond narratively repeating much of what came before, "The Smurfs 2" emanates a further tacked-on smell by shoehorning sympathetic human pals Patrick and Grace into the story without giving them much reason to be there. Patrick's advertising job, which was such a focal point of the earlier movie, is never so much as mentioned, he and wife Grace free to pick up at a second's notice and travel with son Blue (Jacob Tremblay) and stepfather Victor to the City of Light. Patrick and Grace barely interact with little Blue throughout; they might as well be strangers. Neil Patrick Harris (2011's "A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas") and Jayma Mays (2009's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop") are game players, but wasted here, a scene where Grace arrives incognito at a Paris hotel, introducing herself as Mrs. Dolittle, all the more disappointing because nothing is done with this alter-ego thereafter. Meanwhile, Brendan Gleeson (2013's "The Company You Keep") looks as if he'd rather be anywhere but in a film with singing Smurfs, and Hank Azaria (2010's "Love & Other Drugs") reprises his inspired turn as villain Gargamel, his character set in his ways and forever destined to never complete his arc or have a change of heart.
"The Smurfs 2" isn't without a few good zingers and running jokes—when Victor is suddenly transformed into a duck (long story), Vanity tells him, "Victor, you look fowl," while Grouchy Smurf somewhat unsuccessfully vows to turn a new leaf and renames himself Positive Smurf—but the bulk of the film is a strictly inferior affair strung together by a handful of music montages. In true cartoon-influenced fashion, the makers would never dare kill off Gargamel, the sorcerer and his blue-skinned targets stuck going around in circles, neither one ever moving forward or able to defeat the other. Indeed, they're all more or less right where they started by the end credits, giving the proceedings a rote, unnecessary aura. Little kids will still enjoy "The Smurfs 2," but whereas the inaugural movie appeared to try to be a family film of quality, this one has a derivative, made-by-committee feel. Hopefully, a bit more care will be dedicated to the inevitable "The Smurfs 3," the kind not driven by big paychecks. It would be a shame for these adorable pint-sized characters to lose their innocence.