Short of a Strawberry Shortcake snuff film, you couldn't imagine a more cynical and soul-destroying repackaging of a 1980s cartoon than the Smurfs movie from two years ago. And now they're back. This time around, we're focusing on Smurfette, the only female Smurf, and it's actually sort of interesting.
This is definitely a case of "lowering the bar," not unlike the two Wolverine solo films. The first Smurfs film was so horrendous, you could hire Tommy Wiseau and the Birdemic guy to make the sequel and it would look like a shining avatar of brilliance. But I actually do think Smurfs 2 is a slightly watchable film, if you enjoy fart jokes, creepy CG cats, Hank Azaria scenery-chewing, testicle jokes (Smurfberries!), terrible musical numbers, hokey bromides and cheaply animated slapstick. This time around, there's an actual story, instead of just a collection of clichés and pop-culture shout-outs.
The decision to focus the story on Smurfette actually turns out to be a reasonably sound one. She's not just the only female Smurf, she's also the creation of Gargamel, the evil wizard whose only purpose in life is to capture the Smurfs. So you do wonder why Gargamel would never attempt to reclaim his creation, something he finally does in this movie.
Gargamel's created two new faux Smurfs, a boy and a girl: Hackus and Vexy. But without the secret formula that Papa Smurf used to turn Smurfette into a real Smurf, they're kind of useless. So Gargamel, who's still stuck in our world, sends Vexy to capture Smurfette so she can tell him the secret formula, allowing Gargamel to create real Smurfs whenever he wants. After a couple abortive attempts to bully the secret out of Smurfette, Gargamel realizes he should pretend he cares about his creation, and meanwhile Hackus and Vexy start becoming real siblings to Smurfette, who's never had a sister before.
Gargamel even gives her her own miniature version of his own dragon wand, so she can take after her father.
The whole movie focuses on Smurfette's identity crisis. Not because she's the only Smurf who's not identified by a characteristic (like "Brainy," "Clumsy," "Greedy" or "Grouchy") but rather simply by her "ette"-ness. But because she was created by Gargamel, and she always fears that she'll return to being Gargamel's creature, and that the other Smurfs don't truly accept her into their boys' club. The movie starts with a dream sequence showing Smurfette's recurring nightmare, and then when the other Smurfs try too hard to keep Smurfette's elaborate birthday party a secret, she thinks they've forgotten her birthday. So she's ripe for Gargamel's attempts to win her over to her birth family.
Yes, that's what kind of film this is — the "hiding a surprise birthday party so well the birthday girl thinks everyone's forgotten and runs away" thing is a major plot point, and is treated as though the film just thought of it. Although your kids have probably never seen this plot point before, so fair dinkum.
One reason I'm somewhat well-disposed towards this outing is because it hits on a couple of lessons that aren't just the "believe in yourself" pablum from the first movie. First of all, Smurfette's situation is obviously a metaphor for being adopted, and the film hammers home that families love and accept kids unconditionally, even if they were born somewhere else. And there's also a running theme of accepting people for who they choose to be, not what/who they were born as. These are probably good themes for kids to be force-fed by their brainless CG-hybrid entertainments, especially adopted kids.
Meanwhile, just in case you are missing out on the incredibly subtle themes of the movie, we get a matching subplot for Neil Patrick Harris' character, Patrick Winslow. At the exact moment that Smurfette is starting to question whether Papa Smurf can be her real dad when Gargamel created her, Patrick's stepdad Victor shows up. And we discover that Patrick doesn't accept Victor as his real dad, even though Victor raised him as his own. Do you get it? People are questioning whether their adoptive dads are really their dads!
In case you miss the subtle parallels, the film later explains them a few times.
But still, the story of Smurfette being caught between her creator and her "new" family is just solid enough to carry the film through the requisite amount of terrible puns and pratfalls. Smurfette fears that she's just essentially evil or tainted, and then later that the other Smurfs don't care enough to come and rescue her (she keeps not noticing them trying to rescue her, when they're right there) and in the end, she has to decide what sort of Smurf she is. ette. What kind of Smurfette she is.
Oh, and another reason this film is marginally better than the first Smurfs is, it drops the whole "advertising" subplot. We never have to see Patrick trying to come up with a new ad campaign, which was a principal concern of the first movie.
And Gargamel is no longer working for Patrick's cosmetics company in some unknown capacity. Instead, he's become a celebrity magician whose whole schtick is that he yells at his audiences to bow down and serve him — which is actually a pretty funny gag, a few times. Hank Azaria gets a lot more mileage out of this gag than any of the stuff he got to do in the first movie.
The girl in the group
Most of all, Smurfs 2 is sort of an interesting meta-commentary on the whole thing of having the one female character in a franchise. The one female member of the original X-Men, the one woman in the Justice League, etc. Few franchises are as blatant about this as the Smurfs, where it's actually in her name. "Female Smurf," basically. She's set apart by her gender.
And then on top of that, we find out she was created by evil for evil purposes. And constantly has to question whether she is intrinsically more wicked than the boys in addition to her lack of Smurfberries.
The whole notion of being "the girl" is kind of problematic, and you can understand why Smurfette believes on some level that her acceptance on Smurf Village is always conditional on her behaving in a way that makes Vanity Smurf and Brainy Smurf and Passive-Aggressive Smurf feel validated.
One of the weird subplots in this movie is that a few of the Smurfs who come to our world try to break out of their assigned roles, with Grouchy Smurf trying to be positive and upbeat and Vanity Smurf being rugged and useful. You have to wonder if the film is saying that Smurfette, too, is questioning the bouncy, care-free personality that goes with her name.
In the end, the movie comes up with a solution to Smurfette's identity crisis that will surprise absolutely no-one, and incidentally it solves the issue of there only being one female Smurf. But her name is still Smurfette, and her nature is still to represent some kind of feminine quality among Smurfkind, which allows the male Smurfs to manifest diverse personalities. You have to wonder if maybe Smurfette wasn't right to feel tempted to rebel against the Smurf Order.