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The Smurfs

July 30, 2011
The Smurfs

Okay, I’ll be up-front about this: I liked the Smurfs when I was a kid. In retrospect, even the Hanna-Barbera cartoons were relatively inane, but they were cute enough and I enjoyed them. And so I’m pretty confident in stating that — aside from their complexion, their Phrygian caps, their penchant for saying “smurf” for everything, and their annoying ditty — what I saw this morning were definitely not Smurfs. Instead, The Smurfs is another in the series of vaguely-creepy rendered talking things embedded into live action. Worse, it has the whole “they’re a somewhat known pop culture concept in this real world” thing that The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle had going on, and it’s still a terrible idea.

So anyway: in case you’ve lived under a rock of some description, Smurfs are tiny blue creatures living in a hidden forest glen near a medieval Belgian village. They’re all basically named for their defining characteristic including Papa Smurf (voiced here by Jonathan Winters), Brainy Smurf (Fred Armisen), Gutsy Smurf (Alan Cumming), Grouchy Smurf (George Lopez), Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin), and Smurfette (Katy Perry). Yes, her entire identity is “being the girl”, and the gender issues hardly stop there, but those go way back to Peyo’s original comics. Oh, and they also throw in Tom Kane as Narrator Smurf. Seriously.

Since we need an antagonist, the Smurfs have the evil wizard Gargamel (acted by Hank Azaria at his Hank Azariest) and his pet cat Azrael (“voiced” by Frank Welker, naturally). It’s never been clear whether Gargamel wants to eat the Smurfs or turn them into gold or something else, but this time they say he wants to extract their “smurf essence” to power his magic.

And you know what? There may well be a movie there, especially if you throw in Johan and Peewit from the human village and just leave everything in the original setting. But no, they had to go and smurf with it (sorry), and the aforementioned Smurfs, Gargamel, and Azrael get sucked through a vortex that leads from their home to Central Park. The smurfs end up seeking help from Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), a rising executive in a cosmetics company, and his wife Grace (Jayma Mays), who has no real identity besides being Patrick’s wife and the mother-to-be of his child. Gargamel, meanwhile, sets up shop in the basement of Belvedere Castle to try and capture the Smurfs.

Now, not only do the Smurfs not need to be in New York, but they definitely don’t need the dick-and-fart jokes, masked as they may be behind the word “smurf”. It’s funny for a while to see Azaria carry on like a lunatic looking for little blue people among regular New Yorkers, but when he mistakes a champagne ice bucket for a chamberpot in a fancy restaurant, that’s just beyond the pale. The whole fish-out-of-water thing wears thin pretty quickly too, especially when the smurfs seem perfectly capable of recognizing features of the modern city whenever it’s not supposed to be funny that they don’t. It smacks of writing, direction, and production that can’t be bothered to — or simply can’t — work within the natural setting the property already comes with.

The Smurfs may have significant problems as a comic book or a cartoon series. It may be problematically-gendered; it maybe twee; it may rely too heavily on a core concept that can’t really support itself for very long. Still, it never pandered so poorly as this before. But at least it wasn’t as terrible as Hop.

Worth It: no
Bechdel Test: I hate to admit it, but it actually passes. Grace and Smurfette do have a non-man-centric conversation, although it mostly serves to highlight the tremendous imbalances in the movie and with the Smurfs in general. Still, a pass is a pass.

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