Daddy issues abound—among both humans and smurfs—in Raja Gosnell’s inevitable sequel to his 2011 hit about those cuddly little blue folk that the Belgian artist Peyo created more than half a century ago. “The Smurfs 2” is aimed solidly at the youngest of viewers, and its bright colors and harmlessly slapstick action will probably appeal to them. But anyone over the age of ten or so will find the movie inoffensive but insufferably bland.
The screenplay, credited to no fewer than five writers, follows the template of its predecessor closely by having several of the smurfs, led by Papa Smurf (voiced genially by Jonathan Winters in his last film role), venture into the “real” world on a mission to deal with the machinations of villainous wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria, in full-bore evil genius mode). The reason behind this new adventure is that Gargamel has kidnapped Smurfette (Katy Perry), the girly smurf-like entity he created to infiltrate and betray Smurfland, but who defected and was turned into a fully good-natured smurf by Papa. Gargamel intends to compel her somehow to reveal a secret formula that will allow him to turn the new but gray smurflike critters he’s fashioned—Nasties Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove)—into full smurfs. His intent is then to drain all three, and the rest of the smurfs, of their magical essence, which he will then transfer to his wand in order to give him the power to conquer the world. In the meantime he’s enjoying a career as a celebrated magician, enthralling Parisian audiences while completing his malevolent plot with the help of his cat Azrael (Frank Welker).
This scenario is soon cast as a family story, with Gargamel, assisted by Vexy and Hackus, trying to convince Smurfette that they’re her real family, rather than the smurfs (who she believes forgot her birthday, though in reality they were preparing a huge surprise party for her). Meanwhile Papa and his crew—Grouchy (George Lopez), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) and Vanity (John Oliver)—contact their old human pals Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and his wife Grace (Jayma Mays). They’re now parents to a sweet boy named Blue (Jacob Tremblay), and Patrick is struggling with the demands of fatherhood while determinedly resisting the attempts of his stepfather Victor (Brendan Gleeson) to build an emotional bond. The family immediately agree to help—though Patrick would prefer Victor to stay out of it—and are off to Paris.
It would be a tedious chore to detail all the episodes that follow, which include Victor being transformed into a duck for a time. Young children will probably enjoy the Saturday morning cartoon-quality feel of it all, and everything turns out with typical smurf sweetness, even Vexy and Hackus earning their blue pigmentation and entry to Smurfland. And there are some modest pleasures along the way for older folk: Gleeson exhibits considerable comic skill, Oliver delivers a few amusing throwaway barbs, and Azrael’s hissy put-downs of Gargamel have some fizz. Azaria certainly delivers too, although there’s rather too much of him here—a bit less footage of his scenery-chewing wouldn’t be amiss (at slightly over a hundred minutes, the movie does outstay its welcome). By contrast Harris is given surprisingly short shrift, and the predictable resolution of his estrangement from Victor is simple-minded, even for a movie aimed at the kiddies; Mays has even less to do (an Audrey Hepburn imitation apart), and the habit of having Tremblay shout out the obvious at the close of virtually every sequence becomes a tired device. On the other hand, the relatively short bang-‘em-up finale is a blessing, although an earlier sequence involving a giant illuminated merry-go-round that’s detached from its moorings and goes spinning through the streets of Paris is a mirthless mistake. (Given that “1941” featured a similar scene, runaway merry-go-rounds may be a comedic kiss of death.)
Otherwise “The Smurfs 2” is more than competently put together, with some nice shots of Parisian landmarks courtesy of cinematographer Phil Meheux and solid effects work that melds the animation and live action pretty well (apart from a few scenes in which the smurfs look inanimate indeed when they’re being handled by humans in long shots).
But while it will do as a cinematic babysitter, it’s not much more than that.