In 2011, The Smurfs brought Peyo’s comic-strip-turned-’80s-animated-series into the 21st century. By cribbing from Enchanted, Toy Story 2, and other, better movies, Smurfs racked up global box-office numbers that demanded not only a sequel, but—before the second even entered production—also a third film. While the first film catered almost exclusively to children, with a rote nod to accompanying parents, the sequel pairs sophomoric escapades with the origin story of Smurfette (Katy Perry), who suffers an identity crisis as a result of being caught between two families.
The Smurfs 2 sees Gargamel (Hank Azaria, once again gleefully overacting) dissatisfied with being a popular magician in Paris. He’s also a disappointed and abusive father figure to his “failed experiments” the Naughties (Christina Ricci, J.B. Smoove)—Smurfs but for their lack of precious essence. Seeking to turn his creations blue with Papa Smurf’s secret recipe, he hatches a plan to kidnap Smurfette and once again seek world domination.
The first film was a set of bumbling misadventures, as the Smurfs acclimated to their accidental interdimensional travels. This time, go-to live-action/CGI family-comedy director Raja Gosnell accelerates the re-introductions. Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters, in his final film role), along with Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Vanity (John Oliver), and Grouchy (George Lopez), show up in New York to tell their human friends that Smurfette has been kidnapped. They all head to Paris to save the day and to take advantage of the first film’s even-greater success in Europe. This begets a series of comedic setpieces—infiltrating a fancy hotel, hiding from Gargamel—as the Smurfs continually misinterpret Smurfette’s bonding with the Naughties as a betrayal.
The film suggests Smurfette isn’t a “real” Smurf—like the Naughties, Gargamel created her—and this distinction of identity by birth or by choice forms the crux of the script’s little morality plays. Whereas the first movie had Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays (light years away from being “Meryl Smurfin’ Streep”) hurrying through an arc about job security and preparing to be first-time parents, Smurfs 2 turns to NPH’s lingering daddy issues. Harris’ frustration with his ever-present stepfather (Brendan Gleeson) drudges up bad childhood memories, mirroring Smurfette’s disappointment that her “real” family hasn’t rescued her. Gleeson, filling the vacant spot in the cast left by Sofía Vergara, is spectacularly hammy, earning his presumable dump-truck of money by pulling double duty in live action and briefly voicing himself after he’s turned into a duck.
The humor still induces groaning—references to Stockholm syndrome and Star Wars aim for parents but don’t constitute actual jokes—and unnecessary chase sequences pile up. (Though one race around the flying buttresses of Notre Dame is at least visually dynamic.) But the central theme—spelled out in detail in a heart-to-heart between Winters and NPH—explores the child-of-divorce experience, while the film undermines its rudimentary plot points at every turn with base humor. By marginally addressing the Smurfette Problem, Smurfs 2 is at least slightly superior to the absolutely dire first film, but it remains a series for kids whose parents can’t just pop in a DVD of something better.