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Entries in Smurfs 2/The [2013] (1)

Monday
Aug052013

The Smurfs 2 (2013)

Why So Blue?

First-World Problem Number One: I'd intended to see the new Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg picture 2 Guns on Saturday. But because my son's afternoon nap didn't coincide with any convenient showtimes, I had to settle for The Smurfs 2, the sequel to a movie I'd never bothered to watch.

First-World Problem Number Two: I went to the theatre with my father-in-law, an amiable fellow who absolutely loved 2011's The Smurfs. Despite his recommending it to me (in 3D, if possible), I took one look at the kilted smurf, the rapping smurf, and the abysmal Tomatometer rating, and placed the movie on my "must-see" list appropriately (somewhere between Schindler's List in Space and House Party 5*). He'd never experienced Grumpy Theatre Ian before, and I panicked inside all the way to the multiplex.

First-World Problem Number Three: I'm sure you saw this coming, but that doesn't make what follows any less pleasant--for me. So sit back, relax, and snort derisively as I explain my utter enjoyment of this film while scrambling to catch the brittle fragments of my credibility.

The Smurfs 2 reminds me a lot of the goofy, innocuous kids movies I grew up watching. Yes, before Pixar (and, to a lesser extent, Disney) announced that all children's fare had to be adult-friendly, too, the 1980s and early 90s were packed full of fun, time-wasting fluff like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, The Care Bears features, and Hocus Pocus. If you look back on your own childhood (yes, even you, Godard-idolizing film snob), I'm sure you'll find a handful of movies that brought you great joy, but which would render you red-cheeked in a heartbeat at the accusation of having watched them.

Raja Gosnell's latest feature sits firmly in that category. It's by no means a classic, and wears the stamp of a franchise picture as proudly as its titular blue elves wear white pants with tail-holes. But the movie has a big heart and some great, multi-layered messages about family that elevate it a few notches above "product". Since all my cards are on the table here, allow me to drop the Ace: I got misty eyed twice during The Smurfs 2--three times if you count my seeing the depressingly long list of screenwriters who labored over this thing to make it feel like a personal movie, and not the multi-million-dollar widget it really is.

You don't need to have seen the first film to understand the second (for an accurate, semi-complete, and likely less painful synopsis, refer to Jake Gyllenhaal's smurf speech in Donnie Darko). The sequel picks up a few years later, and finds evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) performing stage magic to sold-out crowds in Paris (this after conquering the L.A. and New York scene). In private, he uses his dark powers to create a pair of "naughties", albino semi-smurfs whom he hopes to use against Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) and his village of fun-loving creatures. The smurf "essence", we're told, is the key to unlimited power in our dimension, and can be channeled into a magic wand through a torturous, life-draining contraption called The Smurfinator (or something).

Gargamel sends naughty Vexy (Christina Ricci) through a portal to kidnap Smurfette (Katy Perry), who knows the secret formula that will make the Smurfinator work at full capacity. This necessitates a rescue mission, of course, and after a series of mishaps, Papa Smurf teleports to our world accompanied by three of the seemingly least helpful smurfs in the village: Grouchy (George Lopez), Vanity (John Oliver), and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin). They visit New York City to seek help from their human friends, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays), and their young son, Blue (Jacob Tremblay).

It's not long before everyone's running around Paris, casting spells, dodging spells, and giving Gargamel's cat Azrael a hard time. Even Patrick's boisterous, trouble-making father-in-law Victor (Brendan Gleeson) gets mixed up in this pursuit, at one point transforming into a duck. Yeah, the movie is silly, loud, and colorful, but no more so than the Muppet movies--and with no less heart. 

You might expect a film like this to have a message about the importance of family, and it does, but The Smurfs 2 focuses on the idea of adoptive and step families. Patrick, Smurfette, and Vexy must each navigate tricky dynamics that they weren't born into--some with less of a chip on their shoulder than others. Late in the story, we get the standard unwanted-character-leaves-after-overhearing-a-conversation scene, when Victor realizes just how much resentment Patrick has carried for him over the years. It would be a nothing moment were it not for Gleeson's wounded but tough exit speech (full credit to the actor and whichever combination of scribe input came up with it). Of course, Victor will return soon to help save the day, but when he re-enters the scene, the situation feels markedly different, rather than inevitable.

Speaking of actors, this movie is packed with great performances. That's not to say we're dealing with award-calibre work (unless that award comes with a bucket of green slime), but the flesh-and-blood players and voice talent really sell their investment in the project. I suppose that's their job, but the illusion that everyone involved took the material seriously really helped get me get over a considerable hump of skepticism. Where I expected antics, I got restraint; where I expected fart jokes and innuendo, I got smart, kid-friendly puns. It's reasonable to expect that, with Paul Reubens, Jeff Foxworthy, Shaquille O'Neal, and Fred Armisen, and Jimmy Kimmell voicing smurfs, the entire ninety minutes would be wall-to-wall unfunny, "zany" improv--but I didn't realize that most of those people were even part of the movie until the end credits.

The Smurfs 2 is a solid movie. The filmmakers know exactly what their target audience needs and wants, and delivers a heartfelt, cuddly diversion that parents won't have to worry about explaining during the car ride home.** Sure, you might argue that it's nothing more than a cynical, brand-recognition-fueled tentpole meant to sell action figures, Happy Meals, and tickets for future installments--but that describes every big movie that's hit theatres between June and August for a decade or more. At the very least, this one's about unconditional love, acceptance, and entertaining audiences without leveling cities. That's a low smurfin' bar, but it's all we've got left at the end of this dreary summer season.

*Oh, shit.

**I take that back. Some heavier themes pop up later in the movie, specifically regarding Gargamel wiping out the smurf population to fuel his new magic wand. Still, gun to my head, I'd rather have the death chat with my toddler than lose at verbal dodgeball while explaining a thinly veiled sex joke.