The existence of a hybrid live-action/animated Smurfs movie can be taken as a sign of ‘80s revivalism reaching its apex or simply the apocalypse, depending on whom you ask.
Though the little blue humanoids were created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in 1958, they’re known in the United States as the stars of a 20-year-old Saturday morning cartoon. It might be reasonable to ask if many children today know who or what the Smurfs are. But apparently they do, or have Gen-X parents willing to educate them: the movie made over $36 million in its first weekend at the North American box office.
Though the Smurfs are more fantastical creatures than the grotesque talking animals of Alvin and the Chipmunks or Yogi Bear, their feature film takes much the same approach. The animated heroes are inserted into a live-action “real world,” where alongside human actors. In this case, they’re hustled out of the magically hidden Smurf village, full of weird mushroom houses and dozens of friendly inhabitants, into less magical territory. Fleeing the evil, Smurf-coveting wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria), six Smurfs fall into a mysterious portal and emerge in New York City—just like the lost princess of Enchanted, among other kid-movie heroes.
Because they’re small (“three apples high,” Narrator Smurf [Tom Kane] tells us, cribbing from Smurf lore of old, although this measurement would make more sense in crab apples), the Smurfs go mostly undetected in the city. But Gargamel pursues them, and they seek shelter in the arms of a marketing VP, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), and his kindhearted wife Grace (Jayma Mays).
The first to meet the humans is Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin), whose mishaps tend to drive the plot. Once his friends find him in Patrick and Grace’s apartment, they all focus on getting back home. None has a distinctive personality, though each is named for some apparent characteristic. Instead, Brainy Smurf (Fred Armisen), Grouchy Smurf (George Lopez), the inexplicably Scottish-accented Gutsy Smurf (Alan Cumming), and Smurfette (Katy Perry) all more or less follow instructions from the gentle but authoritative Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters), his knowledge and wisdom illustrated more by his red pants (the others all wear white) than by anything he actually says or does.
By taking a few select Smurfs out of their communist harmony, the filmmakers diminish their fascinating collective in favor of the usual fish-out-of-water hijinks (though their awe at Google is, admittedly, pretty cute). This leaves Gargamel as the most interesting character, a spot he rarely attained in the cartoon series. Few talented comic actors are as game for bad material as Hank Azaria. And here the material is very bad: still, the way an ugly, aggrieved dark wizard responds to modern-day New York City turns out to be much funnier than the reactions of six pleasant simpletons.
The Smurfs’ limitations as characters aren’t favored by the movie’s stock choice of live-action plot. Patrick must come up with the perfect ad for his cosmetics company. Thus, The Smurfs follows another ‘80s-born tradition, assuming that children would or should care about corporate intrigue. Films as varied as Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Flintstones, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins have all hinged on stories that seem written by accountants, for accountants. Though Harris ably plays a corporate stooge on How I Met Your Mother, frequently spinning through some wild physical comedy, here his flexibility is mostly wasted in favor of serious talks with his wife that slow the movie to a crawl.
Yet for all of this silliness and occasional tedium, The Smurfs isn’t as painful a sit as some of its cinematic cousins. Director Raja Gosnell has built his career on resurrecting pop-culture junk, and like his Scooby-Doo movie, this one is more dopey than truly irritating, like, say, the Chipmunks series. He moves the camera with more fluidity and energy than necessary for this type of movie, and leaves in a few decent jokes: discussing the friends they miss the most, Smurfette confesses that she doesn’t care much for Passive-Aggressive Smurf.
It’s not much, but it’s not much worse than the ‘80s cartoon, either. Kids will probably like it (at my screening, a gag as simple as Gargamel getting hit with an egg brought down the house). And when they get a little older, they might even glean a lesson: beware the siren call of nostalgia. That stuff your parents love may not be as much fun as they remember.