LOS ANGELES - Time flies when you're not wondering about the welfare of the Smurfs, those diminutive, animated blue-skinned forest-dwellers. Turns out they've been just fine since their 2011 big-screen outing, but there's trouble brewing in their new adventure-comedy that will require their curious blend of wide-eyed optimism and goofy enthusiasm to peacefully resolve.
A sequel largely unwarranted other than for box office and promotional purposes, the unimaginatively titled "The Smurfs 2" should have little trouble scaling stratospheric heights similar to its predecessor with undiscriminating young audiences and their chaperones, weary from near-unrelenting summertime caregiving.
The occasion of Smurfette's (Katy Perry) birthday presents the opportunity for her to recall her conflicted origins - rather than a "true-blue" Smurf, she was actually created by the hapless, wannabe evil sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria), who now intends to kidnap her from her enchanted-forest home to obtain the formula for the magical Smurf essence that Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) used to originally bestow her with blue-skinned bliss. Once he has the secret, Gargamel plans to power up a host of Naughties, Smurf-sized creatures he's created, to help him take over the world.
So he dispatches his Naughty daughter Vexy (Christina Ricci) to drag Smurfette through a magic portal and into the real world where he can more effectively manipulate her inherent identity issues. Papa Smurf and his mismatched extraction team consisting of Grouchy (George Lopez), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) and Vanity (John Oliver) will have to portal to the live-action world to reunite in Paris with the sympathetic young family of Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) Winslow, their live-action counterparts from the original movie, if they're to have any chance of rescuing Smurfette.
Returning the movie to the European locale of the Belgian Smurfs comic-strip originator Pierre Culliford adds some visual interest, with Paris as the backdrop for the Smurfs' rescue mission, but beyond the classic cityscapes, there's little innovative in this formulaic follow-up.
The Smurfs director Raja Gosnell ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua," "Scooby Doo") has built his career with cute-critter pics and other family fare, and his middlebrow track record remains unblemished with the Smurfs' big-screen return. With a primarily impressionable young target audience, the returning screenwriting team of J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn, along with Karey Kirkpatrick ("Charlotte's Web," "Chicken Run"), has no problem frequently repeating lines, gags and life lessons to near-numbing effect. Beyond a few chuckle-worthy one-liners and some amusing visual comedy, there's not much to engage adults, although the wee ones should be distracted enough.
In his final film role, Jonathan Winters reprises the beneficent Papa Smurf with the requisite twinkle in his voice, but takes a backseat to Perry's bewildered, wounded and ultimately outraged Smurfette. Harris and Mays, as the parents of a young boy appropriately named Blue (Jacob Tremblay), acquit themselves good-naturedly enough, although it's Brendan Gleeson as Patrick's well-intentioned but misunderstood stepfather, Victor Doyle, who really shines in an all-out turn that gleefully showcases his considerable comic gifts. Azaria is equally antic as the incompetent wizard beset by the uneven, if unrelenting, team of Smurf rescuers featuring Lopez, Yelchin and Oliver.
With the exception of Gargamel's awkwardly rendered CGI cat cohort Azrael, the mix of animation and live-action appears fairly seamless in a 3D rendition that helps keep the movie from slipping into the overly saccharine variation favored by the fully animated 1980s TV series.
"The Smurfs 2," a Sony/Columbia release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some rude humor and action." Running time: 105 minutes.