At Mel's Cite du Cinema in Montreal, Quebec, the makers of The Smurfs 2
are recreating the city of lights through the magic of Canadian carpentry, while the entire primary cast of both on-camera and voice actors have reunited to capture the essence of what made the first a success.
Of course, when it comes to Smurfs capturing essence is always a primary concern for main villain Gargamel, and as series producer Jordan Kerner explained that's still very much on his mind in this new installment.
"The second movie really revolves around 'Why one female?' and the notion of Gargamel moving away from hunting down Smurfs to creating and growing his own to harvest the essence from them," explains Kerner. "He's gonna need one thing: the formula Poppa used to help Smurfette become a true Smurf. Gargamel is gonna have to open a portal, get back to Smurf Village and get that formula. He wants to get Smurfette to come back so he can get the formula."
What Gargamel winds up concocting is a new breed of Smurf known as The Naughties. Christina Ricci is Vexy, a flesh-colored Naughty, while comedian JB Smoove is Hackus, who's more grey in appearance. They are more troll-like/grotesque in appearance, with Vexy striking a very punk/goth-girl appearance.
GALLERY: View new images from The Smurfs 2!
So how does the Paris setting factor in?
"Through YouTube, Gargamel becomes the most famous sorcerer in the world," says Kerner. "So we open in a dressing room where we see he's played Vegas, New York, all these things. Gargamel is in Paris playing the Paris Opera House, and we are the only major film to shoot in the Palais Garnier. We are very fortunate that people love The Smurfs. He also goes to Paris because it has the great iron spire he needs to gather the storm to create the portal. Of course, that spire is the Eiffel Tower."
On the walls of the production offices we see art showing the Opera set includes a stylized backdrop showing Gargamel's castle and a giant toad. A "Phantom of the Opera" reference might be forthcoming. There's also a scene where a ferris wheel is rolled down the square, and a set piece in a candy store. None of this would work without the actor who embodied the character of Gargamel so distinctly in the first movie, Hank Azaria ("The Simpsons").
"I feel like I know how to play the character," Azaria says nonchalantly. "Its like practice with an instrument, you get better as you go along, the more familiar you are with it. On the first one I wanted to play him laid back and dry, which is funny in certain places. That really expresses itself in how sarcastic he is instead of him just being threatening, but there's no way to play Gargamel laid back, it's just not gonna really work. A lot of the first movie was Raja pushing me to camp it up and heighten it, and I found it very difficult to trust that at first. 'I'm gonna be overacting.' Eventually I started looking at playback and realized it was most successful when it was always crescendo-ing because that’s the way the character works. You almost can't go too much with this character."
That's all good and fine for evil villains, but what about the cute little blue characters we all came to see? It seems this time out, The Smurfs have a mission to save Smurfette, and they gather the help of an old human ally from the first movie…
"Poppa and a few others take some travel crystals and end up landing in the Winslow apartment of Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays," Kerner states. "It's at the end of their son Blue's birthday party. In the first movie he was nervous about being a father, and we find out why in the second movie because we're going to meet his stepfather. His stepfather Victor, played by Brendan Gleeson, has been the corndog king, and has no physical boundaries. Patrick has that wall in front of him as a character, he rejected this guy who stole his mom."
Brendan Gleeson is the fantastic character actor best known for tough guy roles in movies like Braveheart
and In Bruges
, not to mention the "Harry Potter" movies.
"I read the script, loved the character, loved the part," Gleeson told us. "I thought this would be fun. He's a little goofy. I was a little tense about walking the line of being a complete idiot and being a complete innocent. Victor is more innocent than an idiot, I think. You have to trust a lot of people to be able to go there."
This is a true kids film, and in true kids film style, Gleeson's character gets transformed magically into a duck. There are ducks in training on set, and we eventually meet with the duck wrangler and get the adorable opportunity to hold a little guy, letting it stand on our hand. It is precious.
"I'm very well acquainted with my duck alter-ego," says Gleeson. "I did an opening gambit with the duck, we shared a set at one point. I think we were in tune with one another. The day before I left to come over for the first rehearsal three mallards landed in my front garden and flew away. Two males and a female, so I took that as a sign. Then this morning I woke up and heard this noise outside, I thought they were crows, then I realized it was a duck. Then I forgot that I had actually set my alarm to a duck noise. Obviously something very weird is happening."
We take a tour of the hotel apartment set for Neil and his wife, Hotel Celeste de Paris, "Celeste" being the name of the director's wife. It is luxurious. There's a pile of appropriate magazines: Metro, L'express, etc with Gargamel on cover.
"Three years have passed, so now he's a more committed father," said Harris, who had literally just arrived back on set after a grueling hiatus hosting the Tony Awards. "I think he was a little nervous in the first one. Is he going to be a good dad? Now he's proven himself to be a good dad."
Since making the first movie, Harris himself has become a father, and that played into the new dynamic for him.
"I suppose there was some awareness of how I wasn't a dad when I was playing a dad in the first movie, and now in the second movie I am a dad playing a dad," says Harris. "That little nagging voice in my head saying I'm not believable isn't really there because I am more of a character. Our kids are still so young that I don't have a concept of what quality is in terms of something they watch. They don't watch TV until they're two… I sneak some 'Yo Gabba Gabba' in when it’s a bad day!"
This is one of the rare cases of everyone in the primary cast and the entire voice cast returning for the sequel, including the late Jonathan Winters in his final role as Poppa Smurf. There's also a few new additions, including Passive Aggressive Smurf (a reference from the last movie) played by Jimmy Kimmel as well as Party Planner Smurf played by Kevin Lee.
In Gargamel's gothic lair there's a sewer running through with gross water that a production grip supposedly fell into on one occasion. There's lots of rust, statues, reliefs. There's also a cake for Smurfette's birthday that Gargamel brought to her, no doubt as some kind of evil ploy to drug her… or have her gain several pounds.
The scene we're observing takes place in the subterranean sewer set where Gargamel has created the mother of all Smurfalators. Looks like Gargamel is still trying to capture some of that pure Smurf essence for his own diabolical magic. In the take we're observing, Gleeson and Harris quibble over who gets to smash it with a fire poker, until they decide to work together.
Gargamel: "From Smurf village directly to my Surfalator so you can be with your Smurfs forever."
Harris: "I don't think so, Gargamel."
Gleeson: "You messed with the wrong Smurfs."
Harris: "They're the Smurfs, we're not Smurfs."
Gleeson: "Today we're all Smurfs."
The two continue to fight and bicker, until Poppa (trapped in some kind of cage as he is apt to be) interrupts them:
Poppa: "Oh for the love of Smurf, work together!"
Returning director Raja Gosnell then does a "freebie take" allowing the two actors to run wild with improvs. This bickering relationship is par for the course, and a major theme running through The Smurfs 2
"The original conceit of the movie," says Harris, "is that I have this stepfather that I have conflict in creates its own great duality between his relationship with me, my relationship with my son, Poppa Smurf's involvement in all that. Those reflections on each other made perfect sense. Loved the idea of Paris, love Montreal, like the comedy. They were very open to my notes, its been very smooth."
Afterwards we get to meet and pet Mr. Crinkle, one of four cats who play Azrael in the film, the same cat from the first movie, as well as his trainer Larry. Having been on the set of the first film in Astoria, Queens we knew that Azaria was very frank about how torturous the make-up process was to become Gargamel. We asked him if that process had gotten any easier, to which he replied a blunt "No."
"I really do love this job, but where I really feel I earn my pay is in the make-up chair every day," said Azaria with good humor. "It is what it is, they've got it down to a science. It takes a little less than two hours every day. Wearing it is not so bad. The hair is the most annoying part. The prosthetic is so light now you barely feel it, but the hair and the eyebrows start to itch after about two hours. You can't really scratch them. It's annoying, but the rest is fun."
The Smurfs 2
opens in theaters on July 31.