'Smurfs 2' is pretty much unbearable, but then again I am a guy with no children whose favorite 2013 so far is a toss-up between 'Stoker' and 'Only God Forgives.' To paraphrase Roger Ebert, I’m as sure of the fact that there is an audience for this sequel as I am that I’m not a member of it, but does that excuse how overmodulated and mind-obliteratingly stupid Raja Gosnell’s sequel is? It seems like it can’t. And yet, there’s a massive difference between abominable entertainment made for “everybody” and abominable entertainment made mostly for kids. All of which is why 'Smurfs 2' is the kind of terrible that almost deserves to be excused, because it’s designed to make children laugh at stupid hijinks with bright colors and broad gags rather than tell a story that anyone over the age of five hasn’t seen 5,000 times before, much less care about.

The late Jonathan Winters plays Papa Smurf, who embarks on a quest to rescue Smurfette (Katy Perry) after she’s kidnapped by “naughties” Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (JB Smoove) for the fiendish conjurer Gargamel (Hank Azaria). Smurfette, who thinks the smurfs forgot her birthday, begins to wonder whether or not her rightful place is with Gargamel, who originally created her, and the naughties he produced after she was transformed into a full-fledged smurf. Meanwhile, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) struggles with his own parental issues after his well-meaning but clumsy adoptive father Victor (Brendan Gleeson) agrees to help rescue Smurfette, even as Gargamel’s plan to rule the world begins to fall dangerously into place.

One supposes that it was a calculated decision by the filmmakers to expand Gargamel’s role from the first film, given how prone he and Azrael are to the kind of pratfalls and other enormously painful hijinks that kids find irresistible. But, no one was apparently aware of how frequently that would mean Azaria’s gnarled-up, spitting mug would be shown in close-up – which is something that I wonder if even kids think is funny. It doesn’t help that Azaria isn’t merely chewing scenery as the cartoon villain, but you can literally see him foaming at the mouth as he does it.

Theoretically, the movie examines a theme that’s actually kind of interesting – nature versus nurture – but inevitably, if understandably, the movie breaks it down into a much simpler sort of destiny versus choice quandary: is Smurfette bad because she was created by Gargamel, or can she be good because she was raised with healthy values by Papa Smurf? While it’s generally a good creative decision to write to theme, the movie ladles this parental dilemma over too much of the movie – as Patrick struggles to “deal” with his stepdad (who he blames for some childhood trauma which of course has a very rational explanation), he eventually becomes just a dick, until a single apology repairs everything.

But, that is sort of the problem with movies like this in a nutshell: they don’t allow for any dimensionality when it comes to relationships, and/or the life lessons are applied only one way. The only reason Smurfette doesn’t immediately realize that Papa and the rest of the smurfs love her, for example, is because she is literally unable to interact with them. And, Patrick spends the entire film seemingly being justified in getting angry with Victor, only to discover that his stepfather has tried to teach him his entire life that love is unconditional – one of those discoveries that validates all bad behavior and trumps anything that Victor might need to learn, like when somebody asks you to lay off, do it.

At the same time, I’m wearing myself out trying to parse meaning from something whose depth comes from the combination of single-serving personalities that appear on screen (despite Grouchy’s best effort to rebrand himself as Positive, he ends up having no more complexity than any of his fellow smurfs). And quite frankly, how poorly the film renders its conflicts and characters is irrelevant, because this is a beloved franchise with iconic characters, and the only thing that matters is how often kids giggle.

Ultimately, as exhausting an experience as this is likely to be for grown-ups, at least it’s not true garbage like 'Grown Ups 2,' a genuinely despicable piece of filmmaking which was actually aimed at them, and which fails on all levels for all audiences. So even though it’s not very good, 'Smurfs 2' isn’t worth yelling about until you’re blue in the face, because it merely fails to do more than satisfy the young children who occupy its target market – and who, it should be noted, will probably respond with resounding enjoyment, even if you probably won’t.


'Smurfs 2' opens in theaters on August 2.

Todd Gilchrist is a film critic and entertainment journalist with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Boxoffice Magazine, Movies.com, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies blog, and IGN.com.