Rating: 3 stars out of 5
'The Smurfs 2' will keep a child reasonably entertained for 105 minutes -- but so, for that matter, will a large, empty cardboard box. The box, it should be argued, is more likely to stimulate a child's imagination and less likely to contain jokes about testicles.
But if you're ready to answer the question, "Mommy, what are Smurf-berries?" here comes a sequel to the live-action-animation hybrid that brought back some of 1980s television's most irritating characters.
Katy Perry is Smurfette
If you were dying to have more Smurfs in your life, here they are. But anyone sitting on the fence on the whole Smurf issue isn't going to be won over by 'The Smurfs 2', despite the film's clunky efforts to throw in adult humour ("Smurf-holm Syndrome," anyone?) alongside the slapstick and hacky jokes.
As the story begins Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) is plagued by nightmares that she will revert to the evil anti-Smurf that wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria, squeezing out what little fun the movie has to offer) once created her to be.
Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters) tries to assure her that people aren't how they're made but rather what they choose to be, but when Smurfette thinks everyone has forgotten her birthday (it was supposed to be a surprise), she's ripe for kidnapping by Gargamel.
The feckless wizard, currently wowing audiences in Paris, is running dangerously low on "Smurf essence," and he hopes Smurfette will give him Papa Smurf's secret formula that converted her into a Smurf so that Gargamel can do the same with his latest naughty creations, Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove).
Papa Smurf returns to our world with three of his least helpful comrades -- Vanity (John Oliver), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) and Grouchy (George Lopez) -- and they rally human pals Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) to help out. Along for the ride this time is Patrick's obstreperous step-dad Victor (Brendan Gleeson), whom Patrick has spent a lifetime resenting.
Parisian hi-jinks ensue, including the film's visual highlight, involving Smurfette, Vexy and Hackus riding storks through the eaves of Notre Dame Cathedral. Director Raja Gosnell ('The Smurfs') has obviously learned that, no matter how much your 3D movie is flagging, you can always pep things up a bit with a flying sequence.
In general, the animation feels very slick and competent, with the human characters interacting fairly seamlessly with those little blue imps. Gargamel's cat Azrael, on the other hand, never feels like a real feline; turns out there's an uncanny valley for animals, too.
Naughty smurfs Vexy and Hackus
The script, credited to four people, feels clumsy even by kiddie-movie standards: for instance, Gargamel explains to Vexy early on that, once he turns her and Hackus into Smurfs, he plans basically to kill them for their essence, and yet she merrily helps out with his plan anyway.
The film also has an odd way of constantly apologizing for itself, whether it's by having characters tell bad jokes and then calling attention to the badness or via a running gag at how very annoying that Smurfs "la-la-la" song is. Reminding the audience of how grating this material can be doesn't make this material any less grating. Can't a movie aimed at the tiniest of tots just exist on its own without the makers having to be all ironic and post-modern about it? These are the smurfin' Smurfs we're talking about here.
If there's a target audience for the movie, it's stepmoms and stepdads, since both Smurfette and Patrick learn a lesson (one that's spelled out clearly enough for the three-year-olds) about how a parent doesn't have to be biological to love you and take care of you. That alone should guarantee it some successful (alternate) weekends at the box office.
In the grand scheme of things, 'The Smurfs 2' is perhaps a little less grating than its predecessor, which should count for something. But that's the kind of achievement that you can fit under a mushroom.