I really wanted to like Smurfs 2. And there are a few things to like about it: The vocal characterizations are great; the CGI is superb. But the best five (!) credited writers can come up is a rehash of its predecessor’s plot (evil wizard Gargamel wants to steal the Smurf’s essence). And very few laughs. This is arguably worse than the first Smurfs adventure from 2011. Despite a drubbing from paid critics, that movie took in over half a billion dollars in worldwide box office (most of it from overseas receipts).
Instead of running around New York, the Smurfs are now running around Paris. So how is it that a movie set in the City of Lights ends up making so little use of its landmarks and pop culture reputation? No Moulin Rouge, no Louvre, no snooty Parisians or starry-eyed tourists. No clever references to the theories that the Smurfs are examples of the Communist ideal, indoctrinating young minds with their perfect village where everyone has defined roles and the leader wears red. Besides a late-movie plot development that involves the Eiffel Tower, we get Jayma Mays (Glee) dressing up like classic-period Audrey Hepburn for a useless Breakfast at Tiffany’s reference (if anything, this non-joke belonged in the last movie).
Anton Yelchin (Clumsy), John Oliver (Vanity) and especially the late Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf do really nice voice work. But there’s nothing around them that matches their professionalism except the CGI. The Smurfs should be undercutting big-city rudeness and alternately aggravating/endearing themselves with their innocence and sweet demeanor. Not running around scene after scene with little more to do than yell variations on “Oh no!” and “Look out!” It's kinda cute when they're self-conscious about the groan-worthy jokes they tell, and it shows consideration for parents. But if the writers really want to appeal to the adults in the audience, they could write better jokes. And explain how Neil Patrick Harris’s character can afford to instantly take time off from his job as an advertising executive and fly with his wife and kid to Paris. Speaking of Harris, he needs the opportunity to do more than just play straight man to the Smurfs. Among the humans, Hank Azaria as Gargamel is the only one who gets to cut loose.
This stuff is going to be a blast for its target audience. But it should be much better. We get the obligatory kids’ movie lesson — who you are is less about where you’re from than what you do. That ties into a nice sentiment about stepmoms and stepdads being as capable of love as biological parents. Great. Now make me laugh, for Smurfin’ out loud. The movie’s website is smurfhappens.com. I wouldn't be surprised if the marketers who came up with that were also referring to the quality of the product.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Smurfs 2 opened on Wed., July 31, a full day before this review was posted online. To anyone who saw the movie yesterday without benefit of reading Salveggi's review first, I'd like to take a moment and personally apologize to each and every one of you for sending you in unprepared. That was my fault. Salveggi turned his copy in on time and I sat on it for a day. My bad. —Joe Bardi