After a promising beginning with the tart but sweet romantic comedy “Never Been Kissed,” director Raja Gosnell has been mired in the quagmire of movie junk food, “family” movies like “Scooby-Doo” and “Yours, Mine and Ours.” They are the cinematic equivalent of high sugar, high fat processed food: loud, crude, special-effects-driven, cheesy, and vacuous. His updates miss both the charm and the point of the originals. While the animated “My Little Pony” is not only back on television but it is suddenly hip, this latest version of the Smurfs combines an enchanted world of magical animated characters with live-action New York City and manages to get the worst of both worlds. It tries to appeal to kids with pratfalls, potty humor, and the substitution of “Smurf” for every possible noun, verb, and adjective. It tries to appeal to adults with pointless cameos by Tim Gunn and Joan Rivers. Gunn looks around with the disappointed expression he usually reserves for those Project Runway contestants who are an hour from deadline without an idea and Rivers delivers her one line as if she is hoping her face will look as lively as the expressions of the animated characters. It doesn’t.
The Smurfs were created by Belgian comic artist Peyo (Pierre Culliford), who came up with the idea after he and a friend joked around by substituting nonsense syllables for the words in a conversation. He created a community of magical blue creatures “three apples high” called Smurfs who have adventures, fight off the evil wizard Gargamel, and say things like “Oh my Smurf!” “Smurf-zactly!” and, heaven help us, “Smurf happens.” The film-makers are so proud of that last piece of wit they used it for the URL of the movie’s website.
Children enjoy the Smurfs because they are tiny, magical, sometimes mischievous but sweet, and able to defeat their foe, a human-sized wizard named Gargamel. Kids like being able to predict what each Smurf will do, not too challenging because each one’s name, Seven Dwarf-style reflecting his sole characteristic. (The only female Smurf is called Smurfette, because being female is all you need to know about her.) Children learn what it means to be “Greedy,” “Grouchy,” “Vain,” or “Clumsy,” from the characters with those names. And listening to the way the word “Smurf” is used in the dialog is a good introduction to the way language works.
This film takes six of the Smurfs out of their animated community, with its quaint mushroom houses and soft pastel colors. Grouchy (George Lopez), Brainy (“SNL’s” Fred Armisen), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), the inexplicably Scottish Gutsy (Alan Cummings), Smurfette (the endearingly candy-sparkle voice of pop star Katy Perry), and elder statesman Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) are chased by Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael, who want their magical blue essence. They are all sucked through a portal that lands them in live action Central Park.
Before they can find a way to get back home, they encounter a harried marketing executive (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife (“Glee’s” Jayma Mays), toy store F.A.O. Schwartz, an apartment, an office, a prison yard, and many, many unfunny attempts at comedy about the words “blue” and “Smurf.” Also, in a plot twist apparently lifted from every single episode of the last two seasons of “Bewitched,” the Smurfs mess up their new friend’s advertising campaign for his imperious boss (“Modern Family” bombshell Sofia Vergara) but of course somehow it turns out for the best.
The kids in the audience enjoyed the pratfalls, laughing uproariously when Gargamel got hit by a bus, and happily squealing at the gross-out humor from a disgusting hairball, a smelly port-a-potty, and a chamber pot in the middle of an elegant restaurant. They liked seeing Harris get down with the Smurfs for a rousing round of “Rock Band.” It is good to see Smurfette get a chance to show her fighting spirit, though not so good to see her stuck with a plot line about wanting new dresses, and downright disappointing to see her have to stand on a heating vent in one of them for a Marilyn Monroe joke. This must be why Gutsy is Scottish – so his kilt can billow up when he stands on the vent, too.
The movie wants us to feel affection for the Smurfs and make fun of them, too. It is is raw and mean-spirited, with too many of the “Smurf” word substitutions more naughty than nice (“Who Smurfed?” “Where the Smurf are we?”). That’s Smurfed up.
Parents should know that this film has a lot of potty humor and crude schoolyard references, comic, cartoon-style peril and action including evil wizard, pratfalls, and a character hit by a bus (no one hurt)
Family discussion: What happens if a Smurf does not want to behave as his name directs? Why didn’t Patrick trust his idea? What did he learn from the Smurfs?