It shouldn’t be like this. For weeks, America has been buried in a horrible deluge of endless Smurfs promotions. Commercial after commerical, trailer after trailer, bus ads, billboards, web banners, and everything else imaginable. Weeks before the actual release, I spotted no less than 3 banner ads for it about 100 feet within each other at the mall where I see movies, and walked by the Build-A-Bear workshop, where not only were there posters, but an actual unfortunate employee at the entrance yelling for everyone to come in and build a Smurf. Ads had jokes about Smurf butts and the lone female of the group, Smurfette, declaring that she kissed a Smurf and liked it. (For the record, she’s voiced by Katy Perry, someone well known and respected for her long list of incredible film roles and obviously nothing else. Except not really.) There was no way around it – this film looked dire. I was planning on seeing Cowboys & Aliens, this weekends’ other big release, but I’ve been feeling ever since I started reviewing on this site that I still needed to cover the full spectrum of star ratings, instead of constant 2s, 3s and 4s. Winnie the Pooh delivered my first 5, and as close as Battle: Los Angeles came to the bottom of the barrel, some occasional engaging bits of action bumped it up to 2 stars. The Smurfs seemed like a perfect target; if the bits in the trailers were the best parts of the film, there was no way it could be anything but horrendous.
Upon returning home from the movie, I find that I face a crisis. As much as I was hoping for it, there’s no way I can give this movie one star. It was perfectly tolerable for all but one scene, and despite ultimately feeling formulaic and completely indistinguishable from most kids’ films, there were enough fleeting moments of humor to make me say I did have at least a few brief moments of fun. I feel very ashamed to say that, despite the obnoxious advertising, forced celebrity voices, and uninviting change of scenery compared to the original cartoon, it was okay.
I’m going to put a little aside here and say that I have next to no knowledge or fondness for the Smurfs, other than knowing that the franchise started as a Belgian comic in the late 1950s by an artist known as Peyo. While popular in Europe for some time, the series became better known worldwide due to a 1980s Hanna-Barbera cartoon. After the show’s cancellation in the late 1980s and Peyo’s death in 1992, the franchise faded from the public eye, but that did not stop ideas for an American feature film from coming about. I understand that this movie was first conceived almost a decade ago, and the final product is likely very different from whatever the real concept was.
My point in this is that from what I understand, The Smurfs is a fantasy series. They live in a forest near a kingdom in medieval times, and the main villain is a wizard. When I first heard about this film, I didn’t have high hopes, but I did think it would be neat to see a straight up fantasy cartoon instead of another modern day one filled with pop-culture savvy animals (Rio, anyone?). Then the first trailers and story outlines hit the web, and it seems that whoever was in charge of story decided it would be better to rip off Disney’s recent hit Enchanted (Easily a better film than this to begin with), and have the plot revolve around the Smurfs being warped to modern-day Manhattan and dealing with modern live-action human life. This was not an encouraging sign.
The overall plot is very straightforward. A wizard by the name of Gargamel (played by Hank Azaria of The Simpsons fame) has been trying for some time to hunt down the Smurfs, as apparently, their “life essence” (Soul? Blood? DNA? It’s never quite clear.) is a source of great magical power, and Gargamel will use it to….become a great wizard, or take over the world, or something else equally unclear. Every Smurf’s name is their general characteristic (Brainy, Grouchy, Jokey, and so forth), and the appropriately named Clumsy Smurf does a poor job of hiding himself and leads Gargamel straight to their village. Some of the Smurfs split off from the main group while everyone flees, and accidentally end up falling through a portal in a waterfall and emerging in New York. For some reason Gargamel follows them instead of going after the larger group. They eventually end up hiding in the apartment of a happily married couple (Neil Patrick Harris and Glee’s Jayma Mays), and must figure out a way to get back home like when the stars align at the right time or some other nonsense. Wacky hijinks ensue.
A big problem here is that the Smurfs themselves are very one-note : The one named Brainy is a stuffy know-it-all and nothing else, Clumsy is meek and, well, clumsy, and Smurfette doesn’t do anything other than admiring doll’s dresses and asking if everything will be okay. The only one who comes off as remotely memorable is the leader Papa, thanks in part to a very good vocal performance by Jonathan Winters. I can’t actually remember a point where the character’s personality leaped off the screen and provided an amazing moment, but the voice of Winters fits his grizzled but gentle demeanor perfectly. I should note that watching clips of the old cartoon on Youtube, all the Smurfs’ voices were pitched up to a level that doesn’t quite reach the amount of annoyance as The Chipmunks but can still be grating, and it was wise of the filmmakers to abandon this for normal voices.
Harris essentially plays the same role as Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted; that being the cynical and involuntary everyman who has to put up with the Smurfs’ craziness. Some of the best jokes involve him analyzing parts of Smurf culture that don’t quite make sense (He asks if they’re named at birth or when they get older and develop their specific personalities. Their response is “Yes.”) and getting tired with their constant singing of the theme song they were given in the eighties (The fact that the only word in most of it is “la” probably has something to do with it). However, his subplot, revolving around trying to create an appealing ad design for the cosmetics company he works at, is uninteresting and intrusive. I also can’t imagine the world of cosmetics advertising appealing to the kids who are most interested in this. Mays’ wife character doesn’t do much of note herself, as well. The human character who does deliver some good moments is Gargamel, who is constantly experiencing culture clash moments with everyone he meets and is wonderfully over the top in his nastiness. He also is supplied with a sidekick cat named Azrael, who is neither a normal cat or a cartoon, but a real feline given exaggerated CG expressions and various noises from veteran voice actor Frank Welker. Azrael doesn’t have much to him, but he does give some good reactions to Gargamel’s sillier stunts.
There’s a lot of the Smurfs running around, doing wacky things, and spouting one-liners. The movie also has no shame about product placement and prominently displays a ton of NYC ads, have the Smurfs all pause to say, “Oooo…GOOGLE!” when they discover it, and have an extended ad for the famous FAO Schwarz toy store with them running like crazy, being mistaken for toys, and the irony of Azrael crashing into a Hello Kitty display. Nowhere is the advertising more blatant and unpleasant than a pointless scene in the middle that brings everything to a halt, where Harris shows the Smurfs the time-honored activity of playing Guitar Hero. While Aerosmith and Run D.M.C.’s famed “Walk This Way” plays in the background, a bunch of the Smurfs perform choreographed dances, flash gang signs, mug for the camera, and spontaneously cover the song with more “Smurfy” lyrics. I didn’t hear a single chuckle from the audience during this scene, but to be honest, it helped to put things into perspective. I realized while watching this elaborate Smurf rap (three words that don’t belong together) that this was the only scene that really met my expectations of how dreadful I was expecting the whole thing to be. Almost everything else was perfectly tolerable, save some pointless toilet humor and Smurfette’s line mentioned in the first paragraph.
So, is The Smurfs actually a good movie? In some parts, it kind of is (Most of these parts involve Harris and/or Azaria). For most of it, it sits peacefully in the middle of the quality spectrum, content with neither displeasing or impressing anyone. I have no desire to watch it again or recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have kids or isn’t a kid themselves, but it provided some laughs, got applause when it ended, and failed to leave me angry when I left the theater. Really, if you’ve made your mind up whether or not you’re going to see this, I’m not going to argue with either position. This is not a particularly good film, but it is hardly the travesty it seemed destined to be.