There'll come a moment in this franchise's life (the third one is already planned) when the creative team realizes that Neil Patrick Harris's ongoing angst-ridden storylines are the least interesting and necessary part of the package. We didn't need to know about his ambivalence toward fatherhood in the last film and we don't need to know about his daddy issues in this one. Nobody cares. He and movie wife Jayma Mays are just extremely tall, not-blue people cluttering up the screen. In a more perfectly executed entertainment product for kindergarten-aged cinephiles they should be mere helpers to the Smurfs, human props that fall down and get bonked on the head sometimes, not legit characters with special feelings.
But then again, if these sorts of stupid human tricks weren't in the film we'd never get to see Brendan Gleeson turn into a talking duck.
Gleeson plays Harris's estranged stepfather, which is where the daddy issues come in. And it's not like he was an evil stepfather or anything, he just existed in the wrong place at the wrong time, rubbing Harris the wrong way and leading him to announce that he has no father at all. But when Gleeson turns into a duck (do you actually care why? of course you don't, it's enough that it happens) that plot thread perks right up and every word out of the veteran character actor's mouth suddenly because much more entertaining. Now if only Harris would turn into a chimp and Mays an armadillo, it would be no more or less confusing and nonsensical than it is now and we'd be spared hearing Patrick call his feathered stepfather "Martin Luther Wing."
Elsewhere, a parallel father-trauma is taking place as Smurfette (the voice of Katy Perry) gets kidnapped by the man who created her, the Smurf-hating Gargamel (Hank Azaria, always on point), and shown what her life would have been like had she not become good and gone off to live with the rest of the Blues. Obviously, she must be rescued before she turns naughty like Gargamel's two new Smurf-esque creations, Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove). More importantly she needs to be retrieved before she forgets that Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters) is the father who truly loves her and raised her.
Notwithstanding these wanna-be-about-something-more-than-adorable-blue-antics detours, Smurfs 2 is a step forward from the first film. If you can ignore the Nutella cameo -- which is still crepe-based and therefore sort of forgivable in the context of it being set in France and all -- the product placement hate-crime of the first installment has given way to more pressing Smurf stuff: jokes about flatulence and testicles (you'll never think of the 80's breakfast cereal Smurfberry Crunch the same way again). Kids love that sort of thing. There are also runaway ferris wheels and candy trolleys and more screen time for the mean-spirited Gargamel, who's always finding himself movie-spanked for his crimes against Smurfs.
It's still a chaotic mess, of course, grinding itself to a screeching halt for bromides about the importance of family and forgiveness, then exploding like a confetti grenade of Smurf-chasing and slapstick violence. But it easily and energetically leaps right over the low standards bar, one set in place by so many other grating and offensive children's films. And if that's not the same thing as being good, it's plenty far removed from being truly bad. Draw the short straw, accompanying parent, it won't hurt that much.