In the wasteland of development deals and options that swirl around studios like swarms of locusts, there must be a special nest for the good things of my childhood. Most recently crawling out of that nest is the Columbia Pictures/Sony Animation Studios 3D extravaganza The Smurfs . The Smurfs , you will recall was a Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1981 to 89, a remarkably successful toy line, and a comics and book series stemming from the art of a man named Peyo, dating back to 1958. It is no surprise, then, that next after all of those things was a full-scale live-action(ish) motion picture. With stars like Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara, equally well matched voice talent, and some brilliant animation on Sony’s behalf, what could possibly go wrong, right?
The plot of The Smurfs is both straightforward and convoluted. We begin in Smurf Village, the home of The Smurfs, which rests in the forest outside another town in another dimension (that looks not unlike Sweden). All is well in Smurf Village as The Smurfs get ready for the Blue Moon Festival, which includes singing, dancing, delicious food and lots of joy. Clumsy Smurf finds himself without a job to do and tries to help by running off to find more Smurfberries for the evening’s festivities. When he unwittingly leads the evil wizard Gargamel and his cat Azrael back to the Village, Clumsy, Papa, Grumpy, Greedy, Brainy and Smurfette get sucked through a vortex to our dimension while trying to save life as The Smurfs know it. Followed by Gargamel and Azrael, The Smurfs find themselves on a journey into unknown territory where they meet Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) who have substantial problems of their own (crazy boss, baby on the way, commitment issues). Together they must work to keep Gargamel from capturing The Smurfs and stealing their essence (a substance that can, apparently, do anything), while helping to conjure a blue moon to get The Smurfs home.
I am quite pleased that I was able to see this movie in a theatre packed with kids — not something a childless adult typically does not say. The reason I was so elated to be surrounded by children was that if I had not been, I would have no idea that this movie would be entertaining to those in its target age demographic. The issue is not that the humour is stupid or banal, in fact just the opposite. While The Smurfs themselves are very cute and animated exceptionally well, thus making them full characters in the film, Sony has not yet mastered the art of “one joke, two laughs” — which is to say, tell one joke that has enough in it to make both children and adults laugh. Instead, there were jokes that were specifically for children and specifically for adults. While adults can still appreciate the joke for children, the adult jokes were so high concept that the children in the theatre were left asking, “Mommy, what’s so funny?”
It also suffers from “self-awareness syndrome”. Fully acknowledging that Smurfs are things that we in “our world” are aware of, and have books and televisions shows about, works on a few levels, but ultimately confuses the premise when the writers pick and choose when knowledge of The Smurfs is beneficial for the script and when it is not.
Despite this failing, this film actually holds together quite well (please, pardon my surprise). The story is epic, and while this occasionally makes the script feel crammed, it works out fine in the end and never takes too much emphasis off the central goal (The Smurfs are lost and need to get home). I suggest that this is largely due to the stellar cast. Hank Azaria is in truly fine form as Gargamel and Sofia Vergara is genuinely terrifying as Neil Patrick Harris’ boss.
The Smurfs is a fun family movie that (mostly) everyone will enjoy. It’s certainly got lots of feelgood moments and a very fun ride. Enjoy it this holiday weekend with some little ones, and try to overlook its faults in favour of seeing the brighter side of the film. In other words, be Smurfy.