Once upon a time, Pierre “Peyo” Culliford created his little blue characters, originally called “Schtroumpfs,” which stood three apples high and resided in mushroom houses within the Magical Forest. Those who grew up in the 1980s will remember these creatures as brought to life within the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series; and now Hollywood is doing the forseeable thing by cashing in on nostalgia. In terms of similarities with their predecessors, these creatures are still blue and speak in the same incessant “Smurf” language, but now they’ve hit the big screen in an eerie CGI form. Director Raja Gosnel (Beverly Hills Chihuahua) is a natural at the live-action/CGI combo, but that’s more of a curse than a blessing when one considers that there are already whispers from Columbia Pictures that this movie is the first in a planned trilogy. For this particular film’s story, the Smurfs hit the Big Apple; and as a result, we’re supposed to be impressed.
Predictable? But of course. The already cinematically omnipresent New York City has already featured itself within countless children’s movies, including Enchanted, Elf, the Stuart Little movies, and the very recent Mr. Popper’s Penguins, just to name a few. And yes, using NYC as a backdrop is very tired at this point. It’s also pretty lazy on the part of screenwriters; however, the kiddie flick target audience recycles itself every few years, so I guess the filmmakers can get away with it. In The Smurfs, the usual tourist spots are not left untouched, including the Empire State Building, Belvedere Castle, and FAO Schwartz, and the blue mayhem is really never questioned by any humans outside of the few with the knowledge that the mythical creatures really do exist.
Naturally, the story is quite far-fetched and commences when Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his live/CGI cat Azrael (voiced by Frank Welker) locate the Smurfs’ village. In terror, the little blue ones flee and (through a very convoluted process), several of them get sucked into a vortex that spits them out into Central Park. Meanwhile in the human world, Neil Patrick Harris stars as Patrick, who is attempting to be a sensitive husband to his pregnant wife, Grace (Jayma Mays), while also sparing himself the wrath of his insufferable boss, Odile (Sofia Vergara). Patrick has merely two days to complete an almost impossible task at work or lose his job, and the sudden appearance of a box full of Smurfs does nothing to boost his morale. At least, this is the case at first, and I think you can figure out the rest without spoilers to boot.
In terms of the titular CGI creatures, they’re pretty creepy looking, and the Smurf voice casting is rather gimmicky in most instances: Papa (Jonathan Winters);
Trampy Smurfette (Katy Perry); Brainy (Fred Armisen); Clumsy (Anton Yelchin); and Grouchy (George Lopez, who is so omnipresent in children’s movies these days that my daughter immediately recognized his voice). In addition to these original Smurfs, there’s also an admittedly clever addition, Gutsy (Alan Cumming), who wears a Scottish kilt and speaks with a rip-roaring brogue. If you must know, then yes, Cumming follows his typical pattern of being the best damn thing in an otherwise crappy movie. He even saves the film from its awful Marilyn Monroe-esque air-conditioning vent scene by gratuitously inserting own kilt into the mix, and yes, Cumming’s voice work makes all the difference here.
As far as the human actors involved in The Smurfs are concerned, all do especially fine jobs interacting with nonexistent creatures, especially Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the straight man (har har) quite well and is a welcome change from the likes of overacting schmucks like Jason Lee (Alvin and the Chipmunks) and James Marsden (Hop) when it comes to live action/CGI feats of humiliation. Hank Azaria camps it up to the extreme, which is to be expected from a character like Gargamel, but it’s pretty tough to keep swallowing theater popcorn when his character roots through Azreal’s vomit just to come up with a lock of Smurfette’s hair. To be fair, that was one of the only instances of bodily-function humor at work here, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s a particularly egregious example. Voice work throughout the film (aside from Cumming) is far less effective, especially when it comes to Lopez (who sounds the same in every role) and Perry (whose voice varies between squeaky and high pitched to her natural contralto vocal range), the latter of whom was clearly cast just so she could utter the line, “I kissed a Smurf, and I liked it.”
Ultimately, The Smurfs is a fairly mild yet slapstick adventure wherein Gargamel chases the blue creatures through Manhattan as they also frantically search for a way home. The answer, of course, has to do with a blue moon, but this movie is anything but rare. In fact, it’s as generic as they come for children’s fare. One or two genuinely heartwarming moments occur, including when Papa Smurf has a talk with Patrick about what it truly means to be a father, but these instances are quickly dashed aside for more Gargamel-bashing action. In other words, be prepared for your children to ask for a Smurf for Christmas, but you needn’t even bother obliging with the stuffed variety. By the time December rolls around, they’ll have long since forgotten this needless excuse for a movie.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.