The global family auds who powered 2011’s “The Smurfs” to a smurftastic $580 million gross will find much to enjoy in “The Smurfs 2,” a sequel that changes scarcely a drop of Smurf-essence in its winning formula. Tax-incentive Paris is substituted for New York this time, and a few new characters have been added to the mix, but the genially goofy shenanigans, incredibly corny punchlines and Hank Azaria’s go-for-broke performance as the incompetent wizard Gargamel are very much the same ― an entirely welcome thing in a summer movie season full of so much apocalyptic Sturm und Drang. Coming on the heels of DreamWorks Animation’s nonstarter “Turbo,” the pic should prove a formidable challenger to “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2” for the summer’s family box-office pennant.
Much like its predecessor, this new “Smurfs” plays like a lower-brow version of Disney’s 2007 hit “Enchanted,” with beloved storybook characters freely interacting with humans on the streets of a major city (where, in contrast to their counterparts in most pics of this type, they take few pains to disguise themselves). And while neither “Smurfs” outing matches “Enchanted” or the similar-themed “Night at the Museum” movies in terms of subversive wit and imaginative storytelling, they’re nevertheless pleasing, fairly mindless entertainments, made with a lot of affection for the original “Smurfs” comics of Belgian illustrator Peyo, and just enough sly, self-referential snark to keep parents from feeling like they’re on babysitting duty.
Set three years after the events of the first pic, “Smurfs 2” again opens in Smurf Village, where the looming birthday of Smurfette (Katy Perry) provides the occasion for Narrator Smurf (Tom Kane) to recount the story of how the lone female smurf came to be, starting life as the golem-like creation of Gargamel, only to to be rescued and turned into a real Smurf by the ever-benevolent Papa (again warmly voiced by Jonathan Winters, in his final film role). That sets the stage for a movie very much about Smurfette’s identity crisis ― call it a smurferiority complex ― including her mistaken belief that everyone in the village has forgotten her birthday (when in fact they’re planning a surprise party).
Meanwhile, Gargamel, last seen left behind in New York, has improbably become a world-renowned stage magician, enthralling packed houses nightly with his Smurf-essence-powered illusions. He’s also made two more ill-fated attempts to create his own Smurfs from scratch, resulting in the pale-skinned “naughties” Vexy (Christina Ricci), who’s like a punk Smurfette, and Hackus (JB Smoove), who seems to have a cavernous chasm where his brain should be. Running low on magic supplies, Gargamel is desperate to get his hands on the formula that turned Smurfette blue, which he will then apply to his naughties before bleeding them dry in his suped-up Smurf-a-lator. So he opens another interdimensional portal and sends Vexy to Smurf Village, where she kidnaps Smurfette and brings her to the City of Lights, where Gargamel is preparing to open an engagement … at the Paris Opera!
Of course, where one Smurf goes, more are sure to follow, and soon Papa, Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Grouchy (George Lopez) and Vanity (John Oliver) are on the case, with a pit stop in New York to pick up human buddies Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays), now joined by their son Blue (Jacob Tremblay) and Patrick’s gregarious, estranged stepfather, Victor (Brendan Gleeson). Nowhere to be seen this time around: Patrick’s ball-busting cosmetics company boss (Sofia Vergara), who seems to have rewarded him with the kind of flexible hours that allow one to make unscheduled European vacations.
The Paris scenes are conceived by returning director Raja Gosnell and returning writers J. David Stern, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn (here joined by “Chicken Run” scribe Karey Kirkpatrick) as a series of antic chases in and around such iconic locales as the Opera, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower and Hotel Plaza Athenee, where Victor, having been transformed into a duck by Gargamel, narrowly avoids ending up as the dinner special. At the same time, the wizard works his strange charm offensive on Smurfette, wooing her with gifts and reminding her that he’s her “real” father, leading one observer to remark that she may be coming down with a case of (wait for it) Smurfholm Syndrome.
Gosnell and editor Sabrina Plisco keep all this moving along breezily for about as long as humanly possible, then have the good sense to wrap things up rather quickly and bid adieu. Once more, it falls to wise Papa to lend Patrick some advice about parent-child relationships, but Gosnell never tugs too hard on the heartstrings, perhaps realizing that to do so would be sheer folly in a movie about a bald, buck-toothed man in a baggy black sari chasing after little blue creatures.
Through it all, you have to hand it to Azaria, who throws himself into the role of Gargamel with such abandon that he practically becomes a bouncy, rubbery cartoon character himself. He exists in the movie to be systematically humiliated and cursed by fate ― a human Wile E. Coyote ― and he does it with relish. What’s more: He convinces you that he really, really wants those Smurfs. Oh, how he wants them.
Pic’s integration of live-action and animated elements is once again seamless, while the post-production 3D conversion is good of its type but hardly worth the added price of admission. Paris shimmers splendidly through the lens of returning d.p. Phil Meheux.
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- Neil Patrick Harris