On a deeply buried level, the Smurfs movies do try to connect emotionally with kids. The original 2011 Smurfs positioned a bunch of Peyo’s little blue shirtless dudes (and one blonde dudette) as being exactly like their intended audience: hyper, happy-go-lucky little kids in a big adult world, perpetually getting in trouble with the grown-ups just for energetically speaking and acting on every random impulse. The sequel, The Smurfs 2 (fortunately, but inexplicably, not subtitled Electric Bluegaloo), reaches more specifically and forcefully toward single-digit-aged viewers, with a heavily underlined message about the validity of created families, and how step-parents, adoptive parents, and stand-in parents are all real parents too.
The problem with Smurfs 2 isn’t the message, it’s the way the film repeats it so baldly and emphatically that even the youngest kids can get it. Also, the way it surrounds that message with groin-smashing and farting. (“Every time a Smurf toots, someone smiles,” one Smurf says by way of smug justification.) Also, shameless product-placement, strained plot contrivances, toothless humor, periodic breaks to re-explain the plot, and a little boy whose only narrative purpose is to make big emotive faces so the audience members who still need emotional training-wheels have some idea whether a given scene should make them feel smiley or frown-y.
The overstuffed plot first reminds viewers that human sorcerer and longtime Smurf villain Gargamel (Hank Azaria, gleefully shameless as ever) initially created the Smurfs’ one female member as part of an evil plot, but a spell turned her into a real Smurf. Now, Gargamel has realized he could make more proto-Smurfs, then use the same Pinocchio-style spell on them to make them real. And since real Smurfs are full of magical essence, which he can extract to fuel his magic, the Smurfette spell is the medieval equivalent of cold fusion: theoretical free, infinite energy, if only he can figure out how the damn thing works.
Step one involves getting the spell out of Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry), so Gargamel kidnaps her from Smurf Village and tries to convince her that since he’s her real “father” (as he announces with the appropriate Empire Strikes Back quote), his flawed love is the only love she’s likely to get. As he explains it, her adoptive father-figure, Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters, in his final role), isn’t her real dad, so he couldn’t possibly care about her. This plot clumsily dovetails with another storyline involving human Smurf-helper Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), who has always rejected his own stepfather, Victor (Brendan Gleeson). Both storylines are set up with maximum melodrama and paid off with maximum preachiness, but at least the film has a positive message, and one curiously specific enough to feel worthwhile, especially by comparison with the usual wide-ranging kiddie-film “Follow your dreams” hoohah.
Smurfs 2 still has most of the first film’s problems for older viewers, though, including a painfully obvious take on sponsored content—not only does a Sony tablet become a prominent, repeatedly referenced plot point, Gargamel actually pauses to play with it and praise its ease of use—and humor that consists either of dramatic physical injury or words sloppily heaped into shambling-zombie approximations of actual jokes. (“Who do you think you are, Martin Luther Wing?” Patrick asks Victor when the latter, magically transmogrified into a mallard, wants to free the other ducks awaiting execution at a fancy French restaurant. Take a second to think about how little sense that makes as a quip.)
Both Smurf movies (directed by Raja Gosnell, whose non-Smurf contributions to cinema include Beverly Hills Chihuahua and the Scooby-Doo movies) are lazy, cynical, garish, and mercenary, but The Smurfs 2 does seem to be aiming higher. Nonetheless, it’s hindered by the sheer number of story threads, which crowd each other into insubstantiality. Harris and his human co-star Jayma Mays, both reprising their original-film roles, barely have a chance to express personalities, and their characters’ kid, Blue, is a glorified prop. Gleeson gets a little more room for slapstick and buffoonery, though his character’s sheer awfulness undermines the film’s message; Patrick seems sensible for rejecting him, not because of their lack of blood relationship, but because Victor is obnoxious, self-satisfied, and a comically incompetent hindrance to any endeavor. The only two characters allowed to breathe a little are Smurfette and Gargamel’s faux-Smurf creation Vexy (Christina Ricci); the latter is alternately brazen and forlorn in her attempts to please her dismissive master/father, while the former is universally beloved, yet can’t shake the feeling that no one really cares about her. In brief, fleeting moments, they both suggest emotions and issues that real children might experience, and the movie finds something almost authentic. Then it’s on to the next rimshot moment of a CGI cat getting creamed with a heavy object, or the next weak one-liner. Reflecting kids’ inner lives back at themselves takes time and effort, the film suggests, while it’s much easier to pack in so many variations on the bad guy getting hit in the head, bitten in the ass, or bopped in the balls that kids will go home dazzled, feeling like something must have connected somewhere.