REVIEW: The Smurfs [2011]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: July 29th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Raja Gosnell
Writer(s): J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick & David Ronn /
J. David Stem and David N. Weiss / Peyo (characters)

“Is my thinking interrupting your vile hacking?”

I think Grouchy says it best during goodbyes with his human counterparts in The Smurfs. “I hated it so much … less than expected.” He then caps it off with, “but I did hate it”, sentiments I assumed I’d share before sitting down at my screening and was surprised to find absent. It actually isn’t that bad—but I didn’t love it.

Director Raja Gosnell is no stranger to live action/animation hybrids having helmed two Scooby Doos and a Beverly Hills Chihuahua. His decision to take on such projects may be questionable, even as he laughs himself to the bank, but I guess there is something to the gimmick being in the hands of someone who appears to believe in it. Kids love seeing their beloved characters brought to life—although I will state the obvious on wondering how much anyone under the age of twenty knows about the Smurfs; hell, I’m 29 and had no idea Gargamel created Smurfette to entrap the rest—so who am I to wish this lazy form of cashing in on nostalgia a long, torturous death?

Beginning in Smurf Village, the film does its best to reinvent Peyo’s Belgian “Les Schtroumpfs”, introducing us to a myriad of blue creatures named after their intrinsic proclivities like Narrator Smurf (Tom Kane’s voice is brilliant, the character is used nicely tongue-in-cheek, but the deep bass is too far removed from the cutesy critter it emanates from) and Vanity Smurf (John Oliver playing the ego card of his Professor Ian Duncan from “Community” to the nth degree). An invisible home reached by stepping through a magical cloaking sheet of shimmering air concealing it, they fly in on the backs of birds, pick the Smurf root growing just outside its borders for magical spells, and carry out their business in a 99% all male society seemingly based on the barter system since each only knows one job specific to them and them alone. They exist to survive, sing “La la las”, and be otherwise jovial; hoping beyond hope their arch-nemesis Gargamel (Hank Azaria) never finds them.

But what is a movie without conflict? Of course this bumbling buffoon of a wizard will stumble upon them at some juncture. Crazed by the desire to squeeze the happy-go-lucky sweet essence from each little blue guy in order to wield a power unmatched in the universe, he plots and plans devious escapades to ensnare Papa (Jonathan Winters) and the rest, once and for all. After Clumsy (Anton Yelchin)—if only they could have changed his name, this entire film would be rendered moot—clumsily gets noticed by Gargamel’s large-nosed, balding magic man, he makes a fast dash for the invisible border. Stunned to finally know exactly where they are, the wizard throws his cat Azrael through, sheepishly queries whether he’s still alive, and pushes aside some tree branches to enter the sanctuary, butterfly net at the ready to pounce and capture each one.

It’s good against evil, though, so escape is a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, as foreseen in Papa’s vision of the future, Clumsy once again makes an error in judgment, running the wrong way on their path to safety. Speeding by signs comically warning of the impending danger to come, Papa, Smurfette (Katy Perry), Brainy (Fred Armisen), Grouchy (George Lopez), and the kilt-wearing Gutsy (Alan Cumming) follow after in hopes to save him from the Forbidden Falls. Being on the cusp of the Blue Moon, though, the falls are even more dangerous than usual, a vortex opening up and pulling the three apples high beings into its mouth. With Gargamel following closely behind, he, his cat, and the six Smurfs soon find themselves in a world of tall metal and glass buildings with electric wagons shooting about. They aren’t in Smurf Village anymore; no, this is New York City.

No longer hampered by their fantasy home, Azaria’s over-the-top antics at making the villain flesh and blood the only ‘human being’ existing there, the filmmakers could now set the stage for a morality tale of grandiose messages, love connections, self-esteem boosters, and all the fantastic luck Earth has written down in fairy tales that Smurfs have. They plop into the laps of Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace Winslow (Jayma Mays), their only goal to find a way home by leaving Gargamel in the streets. So, in lieu of a major story concerning themselves—besides an ugly duckling cliché concerning Clumsy that is used in most children’s films—the little blue bodies find a yearning to unsuspectingly help their new New York friends, a couple with issues not apparent on the surface, but that crop up sooner rather than later. It’s grown up stuff like a baby on the way, a prospective new house purchase, and the daunting task of a two-day ad promotion turnaround that will determine whether Patrick’s promotion sticks or becomes one final step before termination.

In this way, The Smurfs lacks any real stakes in its plot, Gargamel’s nefarious activities to imprison them all and make an essence that will power his dragon wand as rough as it gets. Patrick finds himself on a path of forgiveness and acceptance, but other than that, both worlds kind of exist as background. Instead the story meanders through jokes and fun, delighting the kids in the audience by entrancing them all in a way only family friendly fantasy films can. Watching them all rock out in Guitar Hero and act like Run DMC or seeing them run amok at FAO Schwarz—how can that not be cute—is the true meaning of the film, all the stuff with Harris and his boss Odile (Sofía Vergara) innocuous filler to make parents believe they’re watching cinema and not a meaningless piece of fluff delighting their kids but doing absolutely nothing for them.

Harris does entertain with his trademark cynicism and wit, the exasperation at the waking dream he must be experiencing coming through even when he realizes Mays sees the Smurfs too. Some stuff hits big—like Gutsy’s brogue coupled with his bullheaded approach to everything—some hit off and on—like the use of ‘smurf’ in their language, at first for swear words and later infused randomly into conversations, the “Smurfity Smurf Smurf Smurf” line arbitrarily being vulgar eliciting laughs—and some not at all—really Katy Perry, “I kissed a Smurf and I liked it?” Really? But in the end, amidst the awkward integration of human and computer considering the scale disparity, the computer graphics are good, jokes are adequate, and characters moderately likeable enough to hope everything works out. The real plus of the whole endeavor becomes Azaria as Gargamel. His mannerisms are spot-on and he truly appears to be having a blast. And sometimes, a bad guy failing is the funniest piece to the puzzle.

[1] Neil Patrick Harris as “Patrick” in Columbia Pictures’ THE SMURFS.
[2] Sofia Vergara as “Odile” and Hank Azaria as “Gargamel” in Columbia Pictures’ THE SMURFS. PHOTO BY: K.C. Bailey
[3] A scene from Columbia Pictures’ The Smurfs.

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