Though the titular blue critters always endorsed social responsibility and kindness toward others, the Smurfs cartoon series preceded the push for overtly educational children’s entertainment in the mid 1990s. Any messages delivered by the show were secondary to its playfulness and base humor. This is partly what made the program a classic originally, or at least a nostalgic touchstone, but Raja Gosnell, director of The Smurfs 2 and its predecessor, clearly disagrees. There’s about a smirk’s worth of humor and little in the way of fun in the film, partly because its cast of blue whatzits and white humans sure do spend a lot of time preaching and pandering.
The film begins with Gargamel (Hank Azaria), nemesis of the happy-go-lucky Smurfs, enjoying a residency at the Paris Opera House as a magician, using his new Sony tablet to map out his evil plans. His latest scheme naturally involves harnessing the power of the Smurfs to ensure world domination, to which Smurfette’s (Katy Perry) knowledge of a Smurf-making formula proves integral. So Gargamel sends two “Naughties,” pale-toned pre-Smurfs by the name of Vexy and Hackus (Christina Ricci and J.B. Smoove), to kidnap her, which is enough to get Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) out of Smurf Village and off to the City of Lights with his B squad.
Fatherhood is the film’s major theme: Smurfette feels torn between her creator (Gargamel) and her guardian (Papa Smurf), a predicament that renders her easily suggestible to Vexy’s mischievous wishes, while the Smurfs’ wartime consigliere, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), acts a bit prickly toward his gregarious, corndog-kingpin stepfather, Victor (Brendan Gleeson). Azaria and Gleeson’s liveliness helps to power this intensely unoriginal sequel, wherein Gosnell and his five scripters praise the importance of family with the delicacy of a falling bank safe. Because the filmmakers insist on turning The Smurfs 2 into a sentimental weepie, the film is rife with repellent visions of CGI creatures in emotional peril and more than one scene of Papa Smurf on the verge of tears. And if the film does show kindness to the decent stepfathers of the world, it only does so at the expense of the imaginative strangeness and effortless joy of the original cartoon.
Things become especially histrionic in the third act, with the film going as far as to show the Naughties starving to death and the Smurfs getting slowly drained of their life force, like animals being gassed inside cages. That this all happens within minutes of Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin) farting in Grouchy Smurf’s (George Lopez) face should give you a sense of the level of sincerity here, and the less said about the talking duck that encourages a couple to buy a Prius the better. Of course, Gosnell is under no obligation to follow the spirit of the original series, and such a deviation often signals welcome ambitions, but his particular zeal to modernize the Smurfs only develops this would-be family comedy into a shamelessly manipulative smurftastrophe.