There is every reason to think that The Smurfs 2 would do nothing to change the aspects of the first that made it such a non-threatening smash. Neil Patrick Harris was summoned to put some of his modern pizazz on a cookie-cutter fairy tale with some of the most broad characters this side of the Seven Dwarves. It took few chances, hooked in a few other celebrities to pad out the rest of the poster, and coasted its way to a few hundred million dollars.
The most pleasant surprise about this sequel, which was guaranteed the moment the gross passed the budget of the first, is that it tries to double-down on what gave the first film its intermittent charm. I admire that director Raja Gosnell, aided once again by an immense writing team, didn't filter the screen through more layers of product placement and sporadic psychosexual imagery. Some is expected when there's one woman in a village populated entirely by men, but even I had trouble grounding the scene where a Smurf flirts with the Green M&M only to land in a blue explosion in pleasure.
If the rest of The Smurfs 2 carried on like the first thirty minutes this would have been an unqualified like. But softening the problems of the first film into the second does not remove them entirely. This is still a straightforward tale, told with occasional wit, and too many pop montages to antics that would be wacky if they didn't feel so routine.
The sequel picks up an indeterminate time later with the Smurfs living their lives in relative peace. Gargamel has become the stuff of legend, a threat that has been demoted to picture books for children. But since there aren't any children in the Smurf village, it falls upon Narrator Smurf to spell out the story for his slower brothers.
Normally the Smurfs annoy me with their constant smurfing of verbs and nouns, but the opening scenes find a nice balance between poking at their vocabulary and setting up their little world. I managed to get a better sense of the magical paradise that Gargamel longed for in those sparkling scenes with their impossibly bright vegetation and persistent happiness. There was a considerable amount of charm that is once again thrown away when the film tries to pick up speed.
The whimsy of the Smurf world is once again traded for the dull city that Patrick (Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) Winslow live in with their quick growing son. The Smurfs come in search of Smurfette, who is having abandonment issues after being kidnapped by Gargamel, and Patrick facing his own issues with his stepfather. These moments, comprising half the film, exist as a series of bad slapstick and sadly energy-free zones. The introduction of Patrick's stepfather, played by the normally superb Brendan Gleeson, is the perfect opportunity to let these two wiry performers let loose. Instead of cartoonish delight, we get more ham-fisted drama while the Smurfs mope about adding smurf to words. The addition of magical creatures exacerbates an already routine existence that, aside from Gleeson turning into a talking duck, stays within it's homogenized borders.
But if you are one of the many who delighted in Hank Azaria's performance as Gargamel in the first film then the creative staff doubled-down in the best way. I was giddy with laughter over his second run in the absolutely gonzo role. But this time Azaria's performance is matched by some clever staging from the writer's instead of meta-commentary that wrangled a grin or two. In fact, the positives of Azaria's performance are so spot-on that I almost predicted this plot thread at the end of my review of the first film.
"I'm holding out for the sequel, a Smurfless sequel where the is world conquered by Gargamel and he's forced everyone to endure his hour-long variety show."
The buffoonery of Gargamel is embraced via Gargamanaia, the wave of popularity the Gargamel crested on after a Youtube video of him performing magic turns him into an international sensation. It's also an opportunity for more wonderful physical comedy with his animated cat Azrael, who demonstrates that instinct goes before intellect more often than not. I laughed so hard during the first thirty minutes that it upstaged the comedies of 2013.
In fact, so much is improved on that I wish I could take that extra step and throw the green rating up top. There's nothing as outright embarrassing as the song sequences of the first film, and the expansion of Gargamel's role is delightful, but we don't need to have the balancing story of the humans. Neil Patrick Harris should be hamming it up right along Hank Azaria, not moping about his lost bird. Until the series can learn to embrace its outlandish high points, I have to muster a weak smile at best, and chuckle when able.
Directed by Raja Gosnell.
Screenplay written by J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Karey Kirkpatrick.
Starring Hank Azaria, Katy Perry, and Neil Patrick Harris.