Blu-ray Reviews: The Smurfs 2 & Despicable Me 2
Two of this summer’s kids movie sequels come out on Blu-ray a week apart, so that seemed like a project for Franchise Fred. I actually hated Despicable Me. I found it boring and blatantly contrived, with three adorable kids warming the heart of a, really, generic villain. Later that year, Megamind explored being a villain from a much more layered and witty perspective in an underrated film. I actually liked The Smurfs. It made me feel like a kid watching The Smurfs again, albeit with the generic story of bringing them into our world. But it was Smurfs, and Hank Azaria was wonderful in a full bodied, prosthetic enhanced, onesie wearing, impeccably voiced performance as Gargamel.
I didn’t mind Smurfs 2 either but it definitely has sequel problems, not the least of which is that there are fewer Smurfs in this one. This time we learn about Smurfette (Katy Perry)‘s backstory as one of Gargamel’s creations. Gargamel is now a famous stage magician in Paris but he’s running out of Smurf essence. He creates two new Smurfs but they’re not blue, so Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove) are “Naughties,” like Smurfette was before Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) turned her blue.
The Naughties capture Smurfette in an elaborately contrived scenario in which the Smurfs make Smurfette think they forgot her birthday so they can throw her a surprise party. That’ll teach you to perpetrate emotion-crushing deception in service of a temporary gimmick. If kids like this storyline, just wait ‘til they’re old enough to see Sixteen Candles. That was the real deal.
Anyway, Papa Smurf and three others come back to our world to rescue Smurfette, and due to a wacky mishap it’s not even the three he meant to enlist. Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) help the Smurfs again. This time their toddler son Blue (Jacob Tremblay, named after Zach Galifianakis’ character in Due Date…?) and Patrick’s stepfather Victor (Brendan Gleeson) come along to Paris. Wow, that’s three paragraphs of synopsis for Smurfs 2. That in itself is a problem.
There is enough joy in seeing grown ups interact with Smurfs, watching Azaria do his Gargamel schtick and all the Smurf puns to keep Smurfs 2 from being boring. Mays going undercover as a European sophisticate is adorable, and Gargamel’s closet is a cute sight gag. The Naughties aren’t too distracting, even though they’re not better than real Smurfs.
The biggest problem is there’s nothing France-y about setting the film in Paris. There’s one set piece in a pastry shop but most of the story takes place in a hotel. That could be anywhere. There’s a ferris wheel bit that I guess is slightly better than the same gag in 1941. Really I think the only benefit of Paris is you get to see the Smurfs walk on cobble stone streets.
Sequels are supposed to be bigger and badder, so why are there fewer Smurfs? Maybe they only had the budget to do seven animated characters, so the two Naughties took the place of two other blue Smurfs. But Smurfs 1 had all the Smurfs join in the climax. Smurfs 2 doesn’t even have that, just the prologue and epilogue in the village with the whole gang.
There’s a “them and us” theme that’s a bit disturbing. The Naughties see the Smurfs as an “other,” but more troubling, when Papa & Co. see Smurfette getting along with the Naughties, they feel they’ve lost her. That’s what Gargamel wants, you fools! Smurfs should be above that. Smurfs are about loving everybody, even the people created to bring about their very destruction.
The family values are really forced. Patrick resents his stepfather, to the extent that he blames Victor for blowing a Smurf mission that had nothing to do with Victor at all. We know where this is going as soon as Victor is introduced but at least it’s a good family moral, despite being handled poorly. Accept the people who love you, and isn’t that what the Smurfs and Naughties learn too? And some schtick about children with allergies actually pays off. Who would have guessed? Also, we learn that lying to children doesn’t actually help them grow up to be well-adjusted adults. So stop doing that.
Smurfs 2 looks great on good old 2D Blu-ray, probably good in 3D as well, but it’s definitely brighter without the tinted glasses. The live action footage is perfect studio movie quality and the animation (smurfimation?) really stands out. I suppose I should appreciate that the bonus features don’t talk down to kids, inasmuch as they’re a lot of the same generic bonus features foisted on adults for grown-up movies too. I can’t imagine kids will care much about talking heads explaining the story all over again.
Better are some visual effects bonus features which lay out the technical achievements in simple language and demonstrations. However, I did notice that one Azrael shot required them to sit a real cat in a net hanging a few inches off the ground. That really bothered me. You don’t make real cats hang in the air, right? The 22-minute “Legend of Smurfy Hollow” is a solid old school “Smurfs” cartoon, bookended by the high tech movie Smurfs narrating the story. Those primary colors are really nice in HD. Three minutes of deleted scenes gave me more Hank Azaria so I’m happy.
I didn’t hate Despicable Me 2 so I guess that’s some improvement over the original. Not hating isn’t the same as liking though. It’s still not that funny and Gru (Steve Carell) is just a character I don’t find appealing at all. After two movies, I think I’ve given him a fair chance and I’m ready to write him off.
Gru is happy being a good guy now, so we avoid the generic retread of “I miss the old life.” It’s more “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The Anti-Villain League needs his help to fight a new supervillain. They do realize Gru was a terrible villain, don’t they? He wasn’t good at it. They pair him up with Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who is clearly perfect for him, even though his neighbors set him up on a bunch of lousy dates, so there’s that subplot.
I like that Gru enjoys his life as a dad and even puts on a princess show for his daughter’s birthday party without grumbling. That makes for good growth, but that doesn’t make it funny or entertaining. There’s also something about how one daughter has to give a speech for a mothers and daughters pageant, but she’s never had a mom. Her monotone is cute, but wow that’s a blatant heartstring moment. Or at least it would be if that subplot ever went anywhere.
It’s more minion-y, which is good. Give the people what they want. The minions are the draw for every Despicable Me fan and I know it because I saw minion costumes at both Comic-Con and Halloween this year. I’m still not sold. They babble gibberish and take pratfalls, and that makes them cute, but not necessarily funny. They’re the Scrat of this franchise, but Scrat at least has a character. He wants that acorn. I’m still hung up on the fact that they look too much like the claw aliens from Toy Story.
The animation is really impressive. The characters of Despicable Me are pretty hyper, fumbling around in the fairy costume, doing kung fu or dancing. That must have been really difficult to animate and the precision is truly impressive. I just wish what they were doing was funny or told an exciting story.
I did like the secret lair slapstick as Gru bumbles his way through the booby traps. That’s about 65 minutes in when the mission he was supposed to be on the entire time pays off. There’s a brief minion-vision sequence that’s cool. The recurring chicken is cute, and I believe the climax has the heroine strapped to a shark strapped to a rocket, so props for that.
I have to call shenanigans on the guacamole hat though. “The SImpsons” did a nacho hat 20 years ago. Remember, Homer sang, “Nacho nacho man. I want to be a nacho man.” Only “The Simpsons” nacho hat was filled with cheese. This was guacamole so it’s supposedly totally different. I know the kids watching Despicable Me 2 don’t know that but the animators should.
That animation I praised looks mighty beautiful on Blu-ray. The computer rendered images are the brightest and sharpest you can get, and you can see palpable textures in the snow in the arctic base and other exotic locations. The pastel colored mall where Gru fishes out the supervillain is a particularly glorious Blu-ray image.
Despicable Me 2 was going to be a solid 5, slight improvement and enough to sit through, but certainly not great praise. It gets bumped up a notch for the bonus features, namely three minion short films. Shorts can sustain pure minion action, and these end up being adorable, and somewhat emotional, essentially silent films (except the one featuring Agnes. She talks.) Standard story arcs, but in this case the classics work. The deleted scene about “Gruties” is a wild exaggeration of what ended up in the film that actually makes the scene more poignant. That would have endeared the film to me more if it had been left in.
The remainder bonus features are standard makings of but a little more kid-friendly than those on Smurfs 2. Neither of them nailed that balance that Disney/Pixar movies have in their extras, but Despicable 2 has a little more fun with the standard soundbite pieces, mainly because Carell isn’t taking them seriously. The commentary is more for adults too, because really how can you do a commentary for kids? Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are engaging and self-deprecating. They even swear.
So, what did I learn from reviewing two sequels aimed at a younger audience at the same time? Well, Despicable Me 2 makes more out of its continuation of the world they established. Smurfs 2 makes the mistakes of throwing more at it (exotic location, new characters, etc.) and ending up with less of a Smurfs movie because of it. All I really want is to show movies like these to my future children one day. Seriously, ladies, I’m available.