Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews The Smurfs
Many film fans will undoubtedly look back on The Smurfs animated series as a staple of their childhood (or their children’s childhood). While the iconic 1980s show established the characters in American pop culture, the little blue inhabitants of Smurf Village had already been around for over twenty years (thanks to Belgian creator Peyo) – even spawning a black and white cartoon film, The Adventures of the Smurfs.
Now, over fifty years after their debut director Raja Gosnell (Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Scooby-Doo) has delivered live-action Smurfs to theater screens here in America – with appearances by Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofía Vergara, and Hank Azaria. Without question, The Smurfs (in 3D) is set to dazzle a new generation of children who never got to experience the little blue creatures on Saturday morning cartoons. However, will the film hold-up for nostalgic adults looking to reconnect with their favorite childhood characters – or anyone just looking for a good time at the movies?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Without question children will love the movie – and want to rush to the toy store for plastic replicas of the CGI cast: Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Grouchy (George Lopez), Gutsy (Alan Cumming), Smurfette (Katy Perry), Brainy (Fred Armisen), and Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters). However, in a world where Pixar and DreamWorks successfully deliver engrossing children’s films with thoughtful character development and adult themes (to satisfy all members of the audience) it’s getting harder to simply give films aimed at younger viewers a pass – especially when they fall short of being competent kids movies.
For anyone unfamiliar with the basic Smurf-premise depicted in The Smurfs live-action adventure, the story follows six Smurf-leads who, after Clumsy takes a wrong turn during an attack by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria), are mistakenly whisked away from their fantasy realm and transported to real-life New York City. The group of Smurfs then encounter reluctant father-to-be Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) and his wife Grace (Jayma Mays) who are struggling with the life-changes ahead of them – not to mention Patrick’s high-pressure promotion by ruthless businesswoman Odile (Sofía Vergara). As Gargamel, and his ruthless cat Azrael appear in the Big Apple, the Winslows attempt to help Papa Smurf assemble the necessary tools to return his family to Smurf Village – before the portal home cannot be reopened.
The Smurfs delivers plenty of cartoonish live-action that on the surface is silly and fun, but for the most part it spends too much time trying to bridge fantasy with reality – and as a result misses the mark for anyone but children. Some Screen Rant readers will undoubtedly call the criticism unfair and point out that The Smurfs is aimed at children – but that’s not entirely true. Not only are Sony and Columbia hoping to draw-in nostalgic twenty and thirty-something Smurf-lovers, a central focus of the film (and, as result, a lot of the screen time) is dedicated to Winslow’s fear of becoming a father – leading to a number of heart to hearts with, that’s right, Papa Smurf.
Instead, the more kid-friendly lesson embodied by Clumsy Smurf (about making your own destiny) is routinely glossed over. The character, who is the main cypher for the younger audience, is constantly left behind, and subsequently, shoved aside by the “how to be a good father” story. The fatherhood storyline is clearly in the film to give the Smurfs an opportunity to “teach” the humans about family, so that people and Smurfs are better for their time together, but it’s hard to imagine many kids who would readily relate to a life-lesson on “being a good Papa” over one that encourages them to “be who they want to be.”
It’s a shame that Hollywood is so obsessed with the idea of live-action versions of popular eighties cartoons – since the go-to reaction seems to be to pluck the CGI characters from their significantly more interesting fantasy worlds and drop them into a familiar city like New York. The fantasy/reality blend results in an over-emphasis on the drama of human characters – which is rarely as satisfying as the fantasy elements. As a result, the characters are cookie-cutter versions of similar fantasy meets reality stories such as Alvin and the Chipmunks. Patrick is the good-hearted but easily irritated leading man, Grace is the patient and supportive significant other, Odile is the uncompromising boss, and Gargamel, despite being a live-action man, is just as cartoony as his blue adversaries.
The progression of the film is predictable and ultimately lands the live-action heroes in a happy ending – but one that still leaves some plot-threads dangling and never fully realizes a number of the character arcs that are introduced. Unrealized supporting characters wouldn’t normally be a huge problem if it wasn’t for the mixed moral messages that the film asserts (especially with regard to Odile).
Again, none of these criticisms will be deal breakers for the minute to minute entertainment of children – who will easily enjoy seeing the Smurfs pop out of cereal bowls, fall-off balconies, and shoot out of NERF canons as they evade Gargamel throughout the film. However, it’s difficult to imagine that moviegoers who aren’t joined by a child will find much redeeming value in the constant parade of disconnected and silly moments.
The overly-cartoony tone of the film also shackles the live-action actors from being able to deliver anything but one-note performances. Even Neil Patrick Harris, one of the most charismatic and entertaining actors in Hollywood right now, struggles to deliver his lines with anything more than reactionary melodrama. It’s hard to blame the actors, since since the implementation of CGI characters and elements is distractingly bad at times. The Smurfs, as well as Gargamel’s CGI cat Azrael, rarely look or sound as though they actually exist in the New York City environment. For some, it’s a small point of contention but, for a film that’s about bringing fantasy to life, there are plenty of scenes where discerning viewers may get ripped out of the experience – as certain effects don’t sync-up properly.
On that point, The Smurfs is being heavily marketed for 3D viewing but the extra dimension isn’t worth the upgraded ticket price. It’s a bright and colorful film but several of the darker scenes suffer in the 3D translation. Given that the Smurfs are entirely CGI, the blue creatures do pop-out of the screen, but there are hardly any moments in the film that do anything compelling with the added depth.
In general, it’s hard to recommend The Smurfs to anyone but parents looking to take their children out for an innocent time at the movies. That said, given the mixed messages of the narrative as well as the lengthy focus on an adult storyline, you might want to take the kids to Winnie the Pooh instead. Undoubtedly, some older moviegoers will still journey to the theater and enjoy the slapstick action in The Smurfs but most filmgoers who enjoyed the cartoon (or comic strips) as a kid will very likely be left with the taste of sour Smurfberries in their mouth.
If you’re still on the fence about The Smurfs, check out the trailer below:
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below.
The Smurfs is now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.