By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop July 31, 2013 at 9:00AM
The Smurfs 2 epitomizes the sort of toxic jollification that’s billed as "fun for the whole family," but that no one really enjoys.
The evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) apparently has the God-like ability to create living beings. He produces two little flesh-colored homunculi he calls Naughties: miniature bad girl/Valley girl Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (JB Smoove), who's so dumb he sounds like a relative Mortimer Snerd prefers not to talk about in front of company. Gargamel hopes to use them to get the magic formula from Smurfette (Katy Perry) that Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters) used to turn her into a real Smurf. Then he can mass produce Naughties, turn them into Smurfs and extract the enchanted Smurf-essence he uses to fuel his magic.
In-between his sold-out shows at the Palais-Garnier Opera Paris, Gargamel kidnaps Smurfette. When Papa Smurf learns of the abduction, he takes Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Grouchy (George Lopez) and Vanity (John Oliver) to New York to seek help from Patrick and Grace Winslow (Neal Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays). But Patrick’s having his own problems: His estranged stepfather Victor (Brendan Gleeson) shows up at his young son's birthday party, re-opening a lot of old wounds. He ruins the party by giving a kid with nut allergies a corn dog fried in peanut oil. When did poisoning a five-year-old become a comic moment?
Grace insists they go to Paris to help rescue Smurfette; Victor tags along. A lot of leaden hijinks and smarmy feeling moments ensue, each more predictable than the one before. Will Smurfette’s loving nature win over Vexy and Hackus? Will Patrick reconcile with Victor? Will Gargamel and his badly animated cat Azrael get zapped in the butt?
It’s difficult to say whether Smurfs is worse when it’s trying to be funny or when it’s trying to be touching. The jokes are painfully unfunny and often insulting. When Gargamel turns Victor into a duck, Patrick has to rescue him from a restaurant. He insists on taking the whole flock with them, leading Patrick to ask, "Who do you think you are Martin Luther Wing?" The filmmakers go out of their way to mock Chinese tourists and drag out pretty much every cliche about the French. (Although someone involved must have wanted to go to Paris; there’s no other reason for the story to take place there.)
The feeling moments have the self-conscious treacle of the old "Care Bears" films, with lip service about love and family used to paper over the vulgar inanity going on everywhere else. "It's not where you come from, it’s who you choose to be that counts," Papa Smurf says: Life lesson as fortune cookie motto.
The animation never goes beyond adequate, and often fails to reach even that level. Azrael seems to have animated by a crew who’s never seen a cat, the acting is minimal, and the compositing often jarringly inept. The various Smurfs don’t embody their qualities the way the Seven Dwarfs did, they're just puppets for voice acting shtick.
And how many times does an audience have to hear "Smurf" used to replace a gross noun or verb?
Neal Patrick Harris is a multi-talented actor of enormous charm, but the film defeats even his charisma. Not an easy thing to do, but director Raja Gosnell and his crew manage to make Paris seem unattractive. Jayma Mays' attempt to spoof Audrey Hepburn is as embarrassing as it is pointless. And after doing so many live-action films—and such brilliant voice work on "The Simpsons" -- why does Hank Azaria bother camping his way through this tripe?
Although its running time is less than two hours, Smurfs 2 feel longer than a double bill of Ran and Lawrence of Arabia. Eventually it grinds to its multiple endings, which include Gargamel being blown across Paris in a fireworks show; Patrick and Victor embracing; the former Naughties being accepted as “real” Smurfs; and yet another reminder that "Who you choose to become" is what’s important.
By that time, I was ready for a Smurf and tonic—with extra Tanqueray.