By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Aug 02, 2013 at 5:16 PM

It’s hard not to cringe at the existence of "The Smurfs 2."

It – as well as its 2011 predecessor – comes from director Raja Gosnell, whose affinity for animated-live action crossovers has resulted in national treasures like "Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed" and "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." It also has five (FIVE!) credited screenwriters, though with something as dense and as plot-driven as the Smurfs, you need all the help you can get.

That’s why it’s so surprising to report that "The Smurfs 2" isn’t as bad as you’d expect it to be (don’t expect to see that glowing recommendation as a pull quote on any TV ads or DVD box art). Calling the Peyo-inspired sequel good would be a gross misuse of the word – tolerable would be more accurate – but for parents getting dragged to the theatre this weekend, it’s not quite the utter clustersmurf they’re dreading.

After providing a SmurfNotes version of the first film’s story, "The Smurfs 2" reintroduces the viewers to Smurfette, voiced with grating, whispy cuteness by Katy Perry. It’s her birthday, but it seems as though all of her Smurf brethren (I’d list off the various voice cameos, but they only get about a line each, so not worth it) have forgotten her special day. Little does she know that they have a surprise party planned. God, this does sound like a parody of a kids movie plot …

Before they get a chance to spring the surprise, however, Smurfette is sucked through a portal to Paris by Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his two latest creations, two grey, Smurf-sized misfits called Naughties (Christina Ricci and J.B. Smoove). Gargamel plans to use the Naughties to trick Smurfette into thinking they’re her true family and giving up a secret formula that will help him make Smurfs and drain them of their magical essence. Then, he can – wait for it – take over the world.

Smurfette, desperately wanting a family and not exactly blessed with biggest of brains (they’ve got Brainy Smurf for that), falls for the trick. It’s up to Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters in his last role), Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin), Grouchy Smurf (George Lopez, because it wouldn’t be a sub-standard kids movie without him) and Vanity Smurf (John Oliver) to save Smurfette and all of Smurfkind.

They also recruit their human friends from the last film Pat and Grace (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays), along with Pat’s excessively doting goofball stepfather, shockingly played by series newcomer Brendan Gleeson. He gets turned into a duck at one point. We’re a long way from "In Bruges."

As you may have noticed, the story in "The Smurfs 2" isn’t exactly Smurfspeare (last one, I swear). It’s standard-issue story but still clumsily told, with the Naughties’ barely introduced and motives often unclear. Much of the plot movement is the result of the kind of brainless contrivances and annoying misunderstandings normally found in the worst romantic comedies.

The humor doesn’t appear to have been very high on any of the five writers’ to do lists either (shilling Sony’s sexy new tablet and its finger-swipe capabilities seems to have been highter). There’s an occasional laugh here or there, but the jokes are mostly set at preschool, with a predictable rotation of limp Smurf pun, limp blue pun, limp pop culture reference and CGI set piece that’s zany … but still limp.

Every now and then, Gosnell and his writers will set up some simply bizarre gags, such as Mays imitating Audrey Hepburn, a random pregnant bridal photo shoot or Gleeson’s duck-ification. They’re not funny, but points for keeping it interesting.

So how is "The Smurfs 2" actually tolerable despite its childish attempts at comedy and stunted storytelling? Because unlike many of its far more insulting relatives – "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, etc. – there’s some life and even a touch of sweetness to the film and its parental themes.

Much of this is due to the cast, which isn’t merely collecting a paycheck. Harris and Mays don’t have to do much, but they’re charming and natural despite having to act with imaginary blue dwarves and an evil wizard dressed like a friar. Speaking of, Azaria doesn’t have A-grade material, but he hammily sells each joke like it is, to the point that it almost works (almost). Even just Jonathan Winters’ voice brings a little warmth to the screen.

Then there’s Gleeson, the film’s secret MVP. The Irish veteran always brings his soul on screen with him, whether he’s playing a virus survivor, a heart-heavy assassin or making the ultimate sacrifice and starring in a Smurfs movie. He could’ve mailed it in after reading "and then he turns into a duck" in the script, but he’s still there, even delivering a half-heartbreaking speech to Harris about how hard it is to be rejected by one’s son. What the heck? Did "The Smurfs 2" almost wrangle an emotional response from me?

There are pieces of an actually decent movie inside "The Smurfs 2." It’s just a shame they have to be inside "The Smurfs 2." All the same, kids will be amused by the goofy, colorful visuals and easy jokes, and parents won’t be completely stuck wishing for a piece of ceiling tile to fall and knock them unconscious for two hours. Take that as the massively backhanded recommendation that it is. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.