Midway through Raja Gosnell's marginally acceptable "Smurfs" sequel, Grumpy Smurf turns over a new leaf. Sick of being annoyed (and of annoying others), the irritated Smurf starts to view the world -- and the current mission involving his pint-size friends -- through rose-colored glasses. He even adopts the nickname Positive Smurf. Suddenly, things don't seem half bad.
Grumpy's upbeat outlook must be contagious, because I found "The Smurfs 2" to be more enjoyable and far less obnoxious than Gosnell's 2011 family feature. This, of course, is like saying having a cavity filled is preferable to a root canal, but in the dog days of the summer blockbuster season, beggars can't be smurfers.
Daddy dilemmas plague our true-blue heroes this time out.
On her latest birthday, Smurfette (voiced by pop star Katy Perry) feels like an outcast in the cheerful Smurf village and wonders whether she's better off with her "birth" father -- the evil wizard, Gargamel (Hank Azaria, earning his paycheck with diligent vamping).
Meanwhile, in New York City, human Smurf allies Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace Winslow (Jayma Mays) contend with the sudden arrival of Patrick's coarse, self-centered father-in-law, Victor (Brendan Gleeson). And in Paris, Gargamel and his dishwater-gray minions, the Naughties, have hatched a new scheme to kidnap Smurfette and steal the precious essence that turned her blue.
Almost everything about "Smurfs 2" signifies an improvement over the original. Five credited screenwriters overload Gosnell with an abundance of lightweight story lines, allowing "Smurfs 2" to bounce along at an energetic pace and sidestep the superfluous comedic potholes that repeatedly knocked the first film off course.
Real care has gone into Gosnell's sets, production values and fantasy-based special effects.
The 3-D is inconsequential, save for one kooky shot of Harris soaring above the crowd at a magic show. But the authentic Parisian locations -- a tangible result of the first "Smurf" movie's robust $563 million earnings worldwide -- lend a welcome international flavor to this kiddie search-and-rescue story.
"Smurfs 2" even boasts star power. A number of celebrities lend their voices to supporting Smurf characters. Blink, though, and you're sure to overlook the likes of NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal reading one line as Smooth Smurf.
The stars of "Smurfs 2" are Azaria and Harris, both of whom appear more comfortable interacting with imaginary co-stars and figuring out what's funny in this often surreal mix of Saturday-morning storytelling and contemporary pop-culture references.
"Smurfs 2" may improve on its predecessor, but it's not without fault. Juvenile punch lines involving every objectional bodily fluid could (and should) have been avoided. "Smurfs 2" is the kind of disjointed comedy that can land a clever "Empire Strikes Back" joke one minute, then stoop to a lowly gag that crams Vanity Smurf ("The Daily Show" stand-in host John Oliver) up Gleeson's backside.
Gosnell's still finding his way, and the father-figure subplots generate almost enough emotional heat to counterbalance the rest of the immature humor. If this sounds like your cup of tea, smurf away.