'The Smurfs': Less Magical Territory

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.

The Smurfs

Director: Raja Gosnell
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara, Hank Azaria, Anton Yelchin, Katy Perry, Jonathan Winters, George Lopez
Rated: PG
Studio: Columbia Pictures/Sony
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-07-29 (General release)
UK date: 2011-08-10 (General release)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.