I was not exactly in the best of spirits walking into The Smurfs. After seeing what had befallen cartoon icons like Yogi Bear and Alvin and the Chipmunks when Hollywood brought them to live action, can you really blame me? Well, as it turns out, The Smurfs is a small step above some past failed attempts. It's not a complete success, and I can't recommend it in any good conscience, but truth be told, I expected a lot worse than director Raja Gosnell (who previously worked on the two live action Scooby-Doo films) has given us.
I remember watching The Smurfs cartoon when I was a kid, but for the life of me, I don't remember what the appeal of the show was. I remember the appeal of stuff like Transformers or Thundercats, but the charm of Smurfs eludes me. Maybe it was better than the other stuff that was on during its Saturday morning time slot? The movie does very little to remind me of their appeal. The Smurfs are jolly, but very bland, blue little people who are described as being "three apples high", but seem a lot smaller to me. They live in a tiny village made up of mushrooms, fly around on birds, and generally spend all their time singing. They also are all named after their main character trait. Take Clumsy Smurf (voiced by Anton Yelchin), who acts as the film's underdog hero here. He's always tripping over his feet, or knocking stuff over. He wants to be a brave and heroic Smurf figure, but with a name like Clumsy, the others in the village generally avoid him. Our other heroes include Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), who acts as the wise and kind guardian of the village, Brainy (voiced by Fred Armisen), who likes to analyze everything, Gutsy (voiced by Alan Cumming), who is brave and adventurous, Grouchy (voiced by George Lopez), who is pretty self-explanatory, and Smurfette (voiced by recording artist Katy Perry), the sole female resident of the village.
Of more interest to me was the Smurfs' main nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel, who despite living in a dark castle and wanting to capture the Smurfs, never came across as all that evil to me. But hey, it's a movie for little kids, so he's not allowed to be that scary. What's important is that comic actor Hank Azaria goes full tilt in his performance, giving us a sometimes hilarious live action cartoon villain caricature. He's obviously having a blast here, and hams his performance up to the skies, which kind of fits with the character. His partner in crime is a cat named Azrael, who is sometimes played by a real cat, but usually is portrayed by a CG one, so it can give comical reaction shots when its master's plans to capture the Smurfs fail. I liked the way little Azrael "talked" by making cat sounds provided by voice acting legend, Frank Welker. I also liked how the cat frequently seemed exasperated by the plans Gargamel came up with, almost as if it knew they were doomed from the start. While these two characters are not enough to save the movie as a whole, they are easily the most entertaining aspect.
The plot kicks off when the evil Gargamel stumbles upon the Smurf Village, which is protected by a magical barrier that usually makes it invisible to the naked eye. The six Smurfs that I named above get separated from the others during the chaos, and eventually find their way to a portal that warps them to Earth, right in the middle of New York City. Kids (and adults as well) will immediately think of the charming Disney fantasy, Enchanted, which also dealt with characters from a fairy tale world finding themselves warped to Manhattan. If only this movie had half the wit and the intelligence of that film. The Smurfs find a human friend in the form of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris), an ad executive for a cosmetics company who is dealing both with the fact his iron-fisted boss (Sofia Vergara) is breathing down his neck to come up with a new campaign, and that his sweet wife Grace (Jayma Mays) is expecting their first child, and Patrick doesn't know what kind of a father he will be. Both Patrick and Grace get wrapped up in the stranded Smurfs' plight, and have to help them find a way back to their home, which can only be achieved with a magical potion and a rare blue moon.
It's a workable premise, but the screenplay (credited to four writers) gets bogged down in too many subplots. I doubt that little kids will care much about Patrick's problems at work and home, so why does the movie put so much attention to it? There are even some subplots that seem to be forgotten as soon as they're introduced, such as when Gargamel is briefly held in a New York prison. But, I guess the movie would lose its PG-rating if the filmmakers decided to go far enough with that idea. The Smurfs themselves hold very little personality. Clumsy wants to be a hero, and to be taken more seriously by his fellow Smurfs. Smurfette wants a new dress, and is happy to find another woman she can talk to in Grace. Kids will no doubt find this stuff hilarious, but I got tired of the antics provided by the little blue guys (and gal). Sure, they're kind of cute, but they're just not very interesting.
The Smurfs is passable entertainment for kids, and doesn't aspire to be much more than that. It will sell a boat-load of merchandise, and I'm almost certain we'll see a sequel in a year or two. I personally found it kind of bland, but watchable, with the villains being the best part of the movie. Given that it doesn't exactly come from the most inspired source material, maybe that's the most you can wish for in a Smurfs movie.
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