Yes, those little blue creatures that audiences may vaguely remember from their childhood are back. And it certainly delivers on Smurfiness: the mushroom houses, the magic, and the smurf-eriffic vocabulary. Though the family film has some heart, The Smurfs adventure never rises beyond the mediocre.
As the tiny Smurfs frolic in their mushroom village, the evil Gargamel (Hank Azaria) explains to his cat, Azrael, why he must collect the Smurfs’ “essence”, so he can become a more powerful sorcerer. Gargamel attacks, forcing Papa Smurf (voice by Jonathan Winters) and a small band of Smurfs through a magical portal to New York City. Gargamel and Azrael, of course, follow. Papa Smurf leads Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Smurfette (Katy Perry), Brainy (SNL’s Fred Armison), Gutsy (Alan Cumming), and Grouchy (George Lopez) through a quest to return home. When Clumsy accidentally stows away in the bag of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris), a stressed out ad executive for a cosmetic company, the Smurfs find their first human ally. Together with his pregnant wife (Glee’s Jayma Mays), the Winslows serve as unwitting guides to the Smurfs, and attempt to do the right thing by helping them return to their realm. As Gargamel closes in, the Smurfs must return home before the portal closes forever.
The Smurfs put their best foot forward in the opening moments. Narrator Smurf (a clever invention) orates a “once upon a time” speech that describes the Smurfy world as several Smurfs soar high over the enchanted forest. The CGI animated Smurfs are faithful to the original versions, and their interaction with live-action scenery and people works better than expected. It’s fun and visually exciting to see the Smurf world.
The Smurfs takes audiences through a familiar “fish out of water” story, to mixed results. The modernity of New York dazzles the Smurfs. The cars are “mechanical wagons”. The billboards are full of “giants”. Everyday objects like toilets and leaf blowers become potentially lethal obstacles. Its fun to see how exactly Smurfs can navigate the giant obstacle course of New York City. However, it quickly declines into manufactured pandemonium and pratfalls.
For a kid’s movie, there’s oddly questionable humor. Gargamel disgustingly confuses a Porto-Potty with a magical cauldron, and an ice-bucket in a restaurant with a chamber pot. Later, when Azrael clings to Gargamel’s head, Gargamel remarks he didn’t know Azrael was a boy. There are also the obligatory fart jokes and a moment where it appears that the Smurfs are sexually aroused. If these moments were supposed to be funny, the kids in the theatre weren’t laughing.
Yet the film has bigger problems. Some of the clichés were painful, such as Smurfs rapping to Run DMC. CGI cartoon characters rapping and posing “gangsta” style aren’t funny – yet it seems like it happens in every cartoon adapted for the big screen, whether they be chipmunks, penguins, or Smurfs. No doubt the creators thought the kids would love this – yet the kids have seen this a million times before. These kinds of jokes rob the Smurfs of any uniqueness they might have, and is ultimately the opposite of their sweet and naïve nature.
There’s also the issue of Gargamel, admirably played by Hank Azaria. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to do other than talk to his cat, which makes nearly all of his scenes moustache-twirling monologues. Midway, Gargamel teams up with Odile (Sofia Vergara) in a plan to create a magical cosmetic that will keep its wearer forever young, powered by the essence of Smurfs. And then that plot point is dropped completely.
The film does shine when it remembers its sweetness. Jonathan Winters gives Papa Smurf’s voice tangible love and wisdom, in a performance that’s far more lovable than in any other incarnation. Anton Yelchin’s Clumsy is adorable and so full of heart he actually gives the film emotional grounding. Gutsy, a new Smurf created for the film, is a spirited addition, and it’s a refreshing change that one of the Smurfs just wants to kick some butt.
But The Smurfs problems lay mostly in the source material itself. The movie is no doubt faithful to its own mythology. But despite a 50-year history, to most audiences, the Smurfs are just little blue people named after their own personality traits that say “Smurf” a lot. Most adults would be hard-pressed to remember any Smurf story from their childhood. Though admirably voiced and adapted, I doubt The Smurfs for this young generation will be any different.