As a pop culture enterprise, the Smurfs don’t get much respect nowadays, but they have noble roots. Created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo, they originated in the fifties as supporting characters in one of the adventures of the Medieval page Johan (a story later retitled The Smurfs and the Magic Flute). Though not quite as popular or as long-lived as Asterix or Tintin, Johan and his sidekick Pewit (or Pirlout) were the heroes of a well-known, fairly literate swashbuckling comic series that was popular for generations across Europe. The reason I mention this is because growing up in Turkey I was a pretty big fan of the Johan books, and when we moved to the U.S., I was shocked to discover that most of these stories hadn’t been translated into English. But the Smurfs — those weird little blue dudes from the Magic Flute story — were everywhere! Imagine living in a world where the only thing people knew of Star Wars were the Ewoks.
Not unlike their aforementioned Belgian and French comic counterparts, the Johan and Pewit books had a pleasantly offbeat sensibility to go along with their playful, pastichelike stories; they were like self-aware fairy tales for older kids. The Smurfs, however — especially the eighties cartoons — were aimed toward a broader audience that included smaller children, and so eventually it did away with some of the stories’ darker overtones. That’s essentially the version we’re getting with these new CGI Smurfs movies. Or rather, that was the version we got with the first Smurfs movie in 2011, which brought the little blue medieval mushroom-dwellers and their nemesis Gargamel (Hank Azaria) into present-day New York City via a giant magic vortex, for some typical fish-out-of-water high jinks. In the sequel, Smurfs 2, director Raja Gosnell (Scooby-Doo, Beverly Hills Chihuahua) and his team peddle a lot of the same type of stuff in all the usual, uninspired ways. But they also manage to infuse their story with some unexpected darkness and welcome humanity, for which we should be somewhat grateful.
This time, the main stage is Paris. Ever since he got trapped in the modern day in the earlier film, the evil wizard Gargamel has become a celebrity magician, delighting crowds the world over with his sorcery, and he’s now settled in for an extended run at the Paris Opera. Unfortunately, he needs to harvest more Smurf-essence, which is the source of his powers. To help him, he’s created two new Smurf-like creatures, called Naughties — Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove) — who are small and gray, instead of blue, and who treat him as their own father. Gargamel then concocts a plan to kidnap Smurfette (Katy Perry) and force her to reveal a secret formula that will allow him to turn the Naughties into Smurfs. (Smurfette, as an introductory scene informs us, started off as Gargamel’s creation but was transformed into a real Smurf by the aforementioned formula.)
Anyway, soon enough, Smurfette, the Naughties, Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters), and a small group of Smurfs are running and swooping around Paris and Smurfland causing all sorts of havoc. Joining them in the fun are modern couple Patrick and Grace Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris and Glee’s Jayma Mays), who were also in the earlier film, as well as Patrick’s estranged stepfather Victor (Brendan Gleeson). Along the way, we get some unoriginal but cute nods to contemporary culture: Gargamel’s cat Azreal has his own Facebook page; for their son’s birthday party, Patrick and Grace get “an organic, gluten and dairy-free, antioxidant-rich, acai-berry cake made by a local baker who swears he’s never even seen a peanut.” And there are bright spots among the performances, too: Azaria seems to enjoy himself hamming it up as Gargamel, and the always-reliable Gleeson musters up some genuine enthusiasm playing a likably boorish corndog baron constantly at odds with his touchy stepson. It all adds up to a bland, broad, lifelessly directed but not-entirely-terrible piece of family entertainment.
Except, not quite. In fact, Smurfs 2 goes into some surprisingly dark corners. The desperation of unwanted children, the fear of the stepparent … these are scary elements, and the sort of thing that many of our great fairy tales are based around. There’s a certain conceptual elegance, even poignancy, to the way that Patrick’s disdain for his stepfather is echoed in Vexy and Hackus’s fevered, almost neurotic attempts to curry favor with their uncaring, neglectful (sooort of biological) father Gargamel, who in turn just wants to harvest his own children to make himself more powerful. There’s also some touching stuff (don’t laugh) about Smurfette’s own identity crisis; haunted by her past as Gargamel’s evil creation, she feels she doesn’t belong among the Smurfs. It’s all rather unexpectedly melancholy and creepy and grim. (Or should that be Grimm?)
The film, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from following through on these dark elements, and through it all I was briefly convinced that it did some justice to the origins of Peyo’s creation. But unfortunately, the film does so with all the flat visuals, flaccid pacing, and (with the aforementioned exceptions of Gleeson and Azaria) by-the-numbers acting we’ve come to expect from un film de Raja Gosnell. It would be too much to say that there’s a good movie somewhere inside Smurfs 2 looking to get out. But it wouldn’t be too much to say that sometimes, the movie we do have tries harder than we might expect.