"Power Rangers" and "ThunderCats" come and go, but the tiny blue woodland folk of Belgian cartoonist Pierre "Peyo" Culliford are like soccer -- huge worldwide, maybe not so much here. "The Smurfs" (2011) earned more than half a billion, but it was far from profitable stateside so this live action-and-animated sequel goes to Paris -- virtually Smurf Central. Add the last film's good ol' American mix of sweetness and snark, and "The Smurfs 2" may well match the last one's box office.
The wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria, again admirably owning his cartoon villainy) has become a magic-show sensation at the Paris Opera House, with "Entertainment Tonight's" Nancy O'Dell reporting on Gargamania. One of the movie's witty conceits is that no matter how arrogant and patronizing Gargamel gets, an adoring public thinks it's all part of the act.
His magic, however, depends on Smurf essence, and he's running out. He's tried creating faux Smurfs from which to distill it -- the gray-skinned "Naughties" Vexy (voice of Christina Ricci) and Hackus (voice of J.B. Smoove) -- but that doesn't work. So, he sends Vexy across dimensions to kidnap Smurfette (voice of Katy Perry), who also had originated in Gargamel's lab but got converted by Papa Smurf's secret formula. He knows Papa (voiced poignantly by Jonathan Winters in his last performance) would never give that up, so Gargamel and the Naughties play the family card with Smurfette to get it from her instead.
Fatherhood, in fact, or rather stepfatherhood, is a hammered-home theme: The Smurfs' friend Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) must address his strained relationship with stepdad Victor (Brendan Gleeson), the Corn-Dog King; and after Patrick and family join Papa Smurf and others in a rescue mission, Papa sees Smurfette having fun being naughty and begins questioning his own parenting skills.
Bald-faced lessons are delivered like pizza, every 30 minutes or so, and the slapstick is mostly uninspired. But a big set-piece involving a runaway Ferris wheel is a kinetic joy, and, as in the first film, some bits poke neat fun at Smurfology, like a Jimmy Kimmel cameo as Passive-Aggressive Smurf.
Yet, there's a hollowness to the proceedings, a mechanical lack of soul: When Victor is temporarily turned into a duck, it feels like a checkmarked item on the "Children's Comedy Fantasy" list. Maybe, like the Naughties themselves, this movie simply lacks Smurf essence.
PLOT Smurfs go to Paris.
CAST Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Brendan Gleeson, voices of Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry, Christina Ricci
BOTTOM LINE Not Smurftastic, but not Smurfawful, either.