Friday, July 29, 2011

The Smurfs

THE SMURFS (Raja Gosnell, 2011)

The little blue guys and gal in THE SMURFS live mostly care-free existences in their quaint village nestled in the wilderness, even if the evil sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael are constantly trying to find and capture them. Gargamel wants to extract the Smurfs’ essence and thus add some extra zing to his magic, but he is clueless as to their whereabouts in the Middle Ages-like surroundings.

The Smurfs are named after their personalities, so it’s the appropriately dubbed Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) who accidentally tips off Gargamel to their hidden homes. While escaping his clutches, six Smurfs are sucked into a portal that delivers them to present day New York City. Gargamel follows closely behind but temporarily loses track of the magical, three apples high creatures in The Big Apple.

The Smurfs wind up in the home of stressed marketing executive Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays). While the Smurfs seem relatively unfazed in this unfamiliar world, they’re also eager to get back to the portal during the next blue moon and return home. Patrick and Grace graciously agree to assist them and keep Gargamel at bay when he pops up again.

Belgian comic book artist Peyo created the Smurfs in the late 1950s. They found popularity in the United States with the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. A computer-animated feature film about the Smurfs would seem to be the most sensible way to update this kiddie material for a new generation. Instead THE SMURFS and director Raja Gosnell take the eponymous CGI creatures and plop them into a boilerplate, live-action, fish out of water story.

Rather than catering to the kids, who are the only ones likely to care about a Smurfs movie in the first place, the makers try in vain to produce something hip to appeal to all ages, or at least the parents who grew up with the cartoon. Why else is Tim Gunn given a speaking part or do Joan Rivers and TOP CHEF’s Tom Colicchio make cameo appearances? I don’t think five-year-olds are demanding to see their favorites from Bravo’s lineup in this movie.

Such calculated decisions rarely pan out well on the creative side, and THE SMURFS provides a textbook example in the case against this treatment. First and foremost, THE SMURFS’ celebrity voice casting tends to value names that can appear on the poster and stars who will show up on the red carpet. Rather than use voice artists who might better embody these sweet blue beings, the film presents the jarring sounds of George Lopez as Grouchy and Alan Cumming doing a Scottish brogue as Gutsy. Then there’s the nondescript Katy Perry as Smurfette, whose inclusion seems to hinge on putting a Smurf twist on a joke referencing “I Kissed a Girl”. The only one who fits is Jonathan Winters, whose performance doesn’t rely on identifying him as Papa Smurf.

Whether it’s the inappropriate substitution of “smurf” for vulgarities or Smurfette recreating Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, the crass humor is out of place for a franchise that is known for sincerity sometimes to the point of sickly sweetness. THE SMURFS itself is one big merchandising trove, yet it’s also littered with scenes that are little more than ads for Guitar Hero and FAO Schwarz.

Harris does a yeoman’s job in not overacting among the CGI Smurfs. Azaria’s hammy performance as Gargamel is fun in its unrestrained weirdness. It’s readily apparent, though, that THE SMURFS would have been better served by sticking with the all animated introduction for the entire running time than adding live action. After all, bringing the story into the physical world often pulls focus from the title characters who are seemingly the attraction.

Grade: C-

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