Only the Kiddies Will Connect to ‘The Smurfs’

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Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – There is nothing wrong with “The Smurfs” that a thousand volts of electricity couldn’t cure. It is well made, looks good in the optional 3-D and has a competent cast trying their hardest. What it lacks is a spark, either of nostalgia or a fresh update, as it meanders with the seen-it-all-before template.

In a plot lifted directly from Disney’s “Enchanted,” The Smurfs are thrust into New York City and our world, with the same machinations and sidekick help as the Disney princess had when she came to NYC. The silly comedy, plus the good and bad nature of the morality, makes it easy for younger kids to follow, but it lacked the nostalgia candy of the 1980s and ’90s cartoon that their parents most likely desired. And of course, the Smurfs are voiced by celebrities, but for once it’s not too distracting.

The land of the Smurfs exists on another astral plane. The average citizen of their village is three apples tall, wears a cap and are blue in color, plus they are named after their duties or personality (Handy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, etc.). They are mostly male, with the exception being Smurfette (Katy Perry), and have a language that includes the liberal use of the word “smurf” (for example, we smurfed a Smurf). The arch nemesis of the Smurf’s happy home is Gargamel (a hammy Hank Azaria), who because he wants to steal the creature’s blue essence (their magic power), raids the Smurf village and scatters them during a Blue Moon festival.

Six of the Smurfs run away to a mystical and watery portal, that opens up through the spell of the Blue Moon. Smurfette, Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters), Brainy (Fred Armisen), Grouchy (George Lopez), Gutsy (Alan Cumming) and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) take the plunge and end up in New York City, followed by Gargamel and his cat. The Smurfs hook up with adman Patrick (Neal Patrick Harris) and his wife Grace (Jayma Mays), while Gargamel tracks them to the couple’s apartment.

Blue Rock: Neil Patrick Harris as Patrick with Gutsy, Brainy and Grouchy in ‘The Smurfs’
Blue Rock: Neil Patrick Harris as Patrick with Gutsy, Brainy and Grouchy in ‘The Smurfs’
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

Patrick needs to wow his boss Odile (Sofia Vergara) with a new ad campaign he’s creating, and at the same time help the Smurfs get back to their homeland. Gargamel is not far behind, and if he collects enough blue essence he will have powers to rule all worlds. It’s a race against time and the cute antics of the familiar blue crew.

The film looks great and the 3D effect has some interesting moments – the portal would have been right at home in “2001, A Space Odyssey.” The Smurfs frolic seamlessly through both their woodland world and that of New York City, and kudos to Neal Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays for using their imaginations while interacting with the oranges on a stick that later would become the animated Smurfs. The story is kid friendly, too much so, as good remains good and the evil is benign enough not to be too scary.

But there is nothing original in this premise, it is ripped straight from other fish-out-of-water cartoon fantasies and gets wrapped up in a plot that is predictable and boring. The four screenwriters didn’t know what to do with the Smurfs once they got them to New York City, except expound on their characteristics. Therefore, Clumsy is oafish, Grouchy is annoying, Brainy says stupid things and Papa Smurf is strangely gravelly-voiced. Jonathan Winters, who is pushing 90, sounds like his natural vocalizing went through about 1,000 digital filters.

It seemed that the pop culture market for the Smurfs also disappeared about twenty years ago. There was an expectation that maybe this would be some sort of nostalgia festival for their now grown fans, but that was hard to detect around the mechanics of the New York City plot. There were many references to their blueness and the predilection for using “smurf” as a noun and verb in their language, but was that enough to send sentimental shivers down a long lost cartoon spine? It didn’t feel like it.

It has to be difficult to act in films like this. So much puppetry, so much “this will be put in later” and so little emphasis on the human element in the story. Hank Azaria, getting harder to take with each film appearance, practically ties a maiden to the railroad tracks with his villainous take on Gargamel and the portrayal is off. And where the special effects really become noticeable is when the Smurfs cradle in a human hand. They float rather than sit, and the reactions of both Harris and Mays when carrying a Smurf is a bemused, “why am I doing this?”

Smurfing USA: Brainy (voice of Fred Armisen), Gutsy (Alan Cumming) and Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) in ‘The Smurfs’
Smurfing USA: Brainy (Fred Armisen), Gutsy (Alan Cumming) and Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) in ‘The Smurfs’
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

Basically the whole of Smurfdom comes down to they are blue, and they say “smurf” a lot. What is necessary with this thin sketch is a little more creativity. This movie is fine as an afternoon distraction for a eight year old, but those who have to accompany these younger attendees won’t get anything beyond a few character-driven references (a nod to Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy” from Grouchy). It is the Smurfs that are the stars, and their basic personalities are stuck in 1958, the year they were created.

The idea is that the Smurfs go to modern New York City, but why not stick them somewhere in Kansas? Their pure blueness would be more welcome, they wouldn’t have to redeem the jaded urban folk and Grouchy could actually shock somebody.

”The Smurfs” opens everywhere on July 29th. Featuring Neal Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara, Tim Gunn, and the voices of Jonathan Winters, Alan Cumming, Katy Perry, Fred Armisen, George Lopez, Kenan Thompson and Paul Reubens. Screenplay by J. David Stern, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn. Directed by Raja Gosnell. Rated “PG

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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