When I made the difficult decision to spend money on a screening of The Smurfs 2 (by which I mean “It was the only thing playing when I got to the theater and I was going to see something on my day off, God damn it!“), I was hoping for one of two outcomes:
It would be funny in a Birdemic or The Room sort of way, with sheer ineptitude providing more entertainment value than any conscious, deliberate effort ever could
It would be a pleasant surprise, which is certainly not unheard of within the “kids’ movie” sub-genre.
Based solely on its bare bones premise, Smurfs 2 actually had the potential to fit snugly into the latter category. Like many great family films, it is, at its heart, a tale of existential crisis: Smurfette, who was created by the evil wizard Gargamel to destroy Smurf society from within before being redeemed by the saintly Papa Smurf (an origin surprisingly loyal to the source material), finds herself questioning where she truly belongs. When she is kidnapped by Gargamel and his two newly-minted pseudo-Smurfs (dubbed “The Naughties"), she is tempted to revert back to her wicked ways, and (much like Superman in this year’s Man of Steel, now that I think about it) must choose between her dark heritage and her adopted home.
Unfortunately, despite this promising framework, the makers of Smurfs 2 botched the execution, showing absolutely no respect for their young audience.
“Every year on my birthday, I dream about where I came from and wonder… do I really belong here?,” Smurfette sobs in an early scene.
“And every year I remind you that it doesn’t matter where you came from; what matters is who you choose to be,” Papa Smurf gently reassures her while simultaneously illuminating the central theme in insultingly unambiguous terms.
Such obnoxiously on-the-nose storytelling has no place in a genre that has been redefined by such compelling works as Spirited Away, Up, ParaNorman, and Hugo. Even Neil Patrick Harris, a consummate professional, seems bored by the material, skating by on charm alone, just barely earning his paycheck. Series newcomer Brendan Gleeson, playing Neil’s over-enthusiastic stepfather, fares a bit better. Much like Ron Perlman, Gleeson tends to enrich any project in which he participates, and Smurfs 2 is no exception: although he’s mostly playing a live action cartoon, he rises to the occasion when the script demands drama, contributing genuine emotion to the film’s single effective scene.
Sadly, the animated heroes lack the personality of their thinly-drawn flesh-and-blood counterparts. The late Jonathan Winters is pitch perfect as Papa Smurf, delivering an appropriately compassionate, grandfatherly vocal performance, but he deserved a much better cinematic send off. Katy Perry and Christina Ricci sketch a semi-interesting relationship between Smurfette and Vexy, but both overcompensate for the slight screenplay by overacting to an annoying degree. Grouchy, Clumsy, and Vanity—a comedic trio so bland and anonymous that you’d never guess George Lopez, Anton Yelchin, and John Oliver were responsible for failing to bring them to life—fall short of even the one-note gimmicks their names would imply.
Ultimately, that is the greatest storytelling sin committed by Smurfs 2: it’s a generic, disposable, boring waste of time and talent, making it impossible to enjoy on any level. It doesn’t even approach the legendary status of “So-Bad-It’s-Good.“ It’s just plain bad.
[Originally written August 2, 2013.]