Most fans of the classic The Smurfs cartoon find the idea of a feature-length CGI/live action version somewhat disconcerting, as these animated 3D hybrids have been less than dazzling in the past. While not Smurf-tastic, The Smurfs is a cute family film that suffers from being a little formulaic and uninspired. Out in theaters on July 29th, The Smurfs is a great film for the kiddos and a chance for fans of the original to reminisce.
The original Smurfscartoon, termed “kiddie cocaine” for those who grew up watching it in the ‘80s, is pretty much sacred ground to some of us (ok, me). And given the dismal results of other animated hybrid cartoon remakes like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Scooby-Doo and Garfield, it’s only natural that fans wouldn’t want this endearing tale of little blue singing creatures ruined. Especially as The Smurfs is directed by the man behind said Scooby-Doo hybrid, as well as the embarrassingly bad Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Raja Gosnell.
Here’s the plot rundown. The Smurfs are frolicking in the forest of their world, singing a happy tune, picking smurf berries and preparing for the Blue Moon ceremony. Papa Smurf sees a disturbing vision when he casts a spell, and is worried that his smurfs are in real danger now that the stars are aligning around the Blue Moon.
Meanwhile, wizardy villain Gargamel and his wicked cat Azrael are plotting the Smurfs’ capture in their cottage/laboratory. Apparently Gargamel needs smurf “essence” to have true magic, and since he can’t locate their village he must rely on tricks and hi-jinks.
When Clumsy Smurf inadvertently reveals the location of the village to Gargamel, chaos ensues and the smurfs begin to run for their lives. With Gargamel and Azrael in hot pursuit, Clumsy takes a wrong turn in the forest and runs right into a dangerous and forbidden grotto.
Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Gutsy smurf and Grouchy smurf follow Clumsy to try and rescue him, and they all end up being sucked into a magic vortex that pops them out in New York City. Unfortunately for them, Gargamel and Azrael jump in after them, and the chase continues.
Poor Clumsy gets into more trouble as he ends up in hard-working ad man Patrick Wilson’s stuff and gets carried home with him. Patrick is trying to keep his job, and his sweet pregnant wife is maybe the only person in New York who would not only be happy to discover little blue creatures in her bathroom, but immediately befriend them.
Patrick and his wife Grace try to help Papa Smurf and the others find a telescope so that they can read the stars, and find out when the Blue Moon will return. It needs to come back in order for them to create a vortex to take them home. Of course, Patrick finds having a handful of smurfs to look after more trouble than it’s worth, and Gargamel’s hot pursuit doesn’t help matters. In truly predictable fashion, Poor Clumsy learns he can be anything he wants to be, and Gargamel ends up facing the wrath of Smurfs. And they’re not as little and helpless as he assumed.
The story itself is cute enough, if a bit too much like the recent fairy-tale CGI hybrid Enchanted. It plays out like a handful of similarly-themed animated films that have come out in the last few years. The story is your prototypical fish-out-of-water formula, which can feel extremely formulaic. You can identify with some of the characters, and there’s an undeniable “cute” factor, but in the end you walk out of the theater feeling like The Smurfs was an uninspired mash-up of previous films.
That’s not to say the CGI isn’t top quality. With Sony Pictures Animation working on the film, the studio behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, it’s not surprising that the special effects are high quality and well thought out. It’s just that the 3D CGI format drains out much of the charm of the 2D animation source material. It’s a kind of rejection of the archetypal 2D drawn animation cartoon characters when they give them new life as 3D computerized characters, with all of that highly texturized realism and glassy-eyed perfection.
It’s hard to believe this Columbia Pictures film could go wrong, with a cast that includes the character-acting genius of Hank Azaria as Gargamel, as well as the dry wit of Neil Patrick Harris as harried husband Patrick. It also features the voice talents of Katy Perry, Anton Yelchin, Alan Cumming, George Lopez, and Jonathan Winters.
They did add a brand new smurf just for the movie that seemed completely unnecessary, given that there are over a hundred Smurf characters to choose from. I didn’t mind the addition of Narrator Smurf or even Passive-Aggressive Smurf, but Gutsy Smurf? Gutsy (Cumming) played a major role in this film, and was a Scottish kilt-wearing, side-burn-sporting blue creature. Why oh why?
Azaria plays Gargamel with amazing authenticity. He’s a talented voice actor as well as character actor, but this is one of the best transformations I’ve seen him make in the last few years. He looks so much like the cartoon character, and has the voice and mannerisms down so pat, that I could literally visualize him running through the 2D trees of The Smurfs cartoon.
Yelchin and Perry stood out as far as the voice talent cast, playing Clumsy and Smurfette respectively. Yelchin brought a great vulnerability to Clumsy, augmented by the wide-eyed cuteness of the animation art. Perry did a surprisingly good job as Smurfette, with just enough flirty feminism to make her character girly but still care-taking.
Winters reprised his role as Papa Smurf, having been the voice behind the original. Naturally, his Papa smurf sounded as virtuous and kindly as you would expect. Lopez, a late-night comedian and talk-show host, played Grouchy in a disappointing performance; too much “George Lopez” and not enough “Grouchy Smurf”.
Something I did like about The Smurfs was the fun self-referential moments, like when Patrick researched what smurfs are and the audience is treated to a little lesson tinged with the true Belgian origins of the smurfs…or “schtroumpfs”. There are also some good jokes about the weirdness of the show’s universe (there are all those male Smurfs, and just one female), and also much fun-poking at their language.
As I said, the cookie-cutter story and tired plot details kept this film from being really great, as did the 3D CGI animated version of iconic drawn characters. Fortunately there was only one sudden rap remix featuring the stylings of Patrick and three of the Smurfs, including synchronized hip-hop dance moves.
There are some jokes for the grown-ups, and of course the kiddos will be pleased so I think The Smurfs does fall squarely into the family film area. I can’t say it’s Smurf-tastic, but I can say fans of the original Hanna-Barbera cartoon won’t go running from the theater. They will have the chance to reminisce, but in the end they’ll wish The Smurfs had been truer to the spirit of the original.