Film Review: The Smurfs

It's the humans--mainly Neil Patrick Harris--who carry the day in the 'Smurfs' movie, which taps 3D, computer animation and memories of a popular cartoon series about the tiny blue creatures.

The first in a planned trilogy about the sprite-like forest folk, The Smurfs unabashedly uses new technology to hoodwink kids (and their adult friends) into thinking they’re seeing an uplifting, updated version of the popular television series, cartoons and assorted products. But it’s a cynical extension, not even an earnest spin-off.

To see how engaging Smurfs could be, you have to sit through all of The Smurfs, not necessarily a good thing. As directed by Raja Gosnell (Big Momma’s House, Scooby-Doo), the film doesn’t deliver the real thing until the final credits roll and the original characters from the whimsical drawings of the Belgian artist Peyo start moving around the screen. Here too are some (finally!) clever shots such as the Smurfs sitting on a plank—a homage to the famous photo of construction workers perched over New York. Why did they save the best for the very last?

Until then, it’s a mixed bag, dragged around mainly by Neil Patrick Harris cast as a marketing maven named Patrick whose life is suddenly invaded by a handful of Smurfs. They have been expelled, a la Disney’s Enchanted, from their native forest by their nemesis, evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria), and through a convenient portal. He follows them.
Though 3D may not be required for a movie about one-dimensional cartoon characters, the film’s opening showing the Smurfs still in their happy home in Middle Europe does carry a punch, with a lovely, high-saturation color scheme echoed later in the movie when the Smurfs do a little interior decorating. The gang lands briefly in Central Park, but then The Smurfs can’t seem to get out of Patrick’s apartment, particularly the bathroom—disgusting toilet humor being the fail-safe laugh-getter this summer.

Patrick is on a furiously fast career path, and also a dad-to-be, with a sweet wife, Christine (Jayma Mays). Unaccountably, she is more, then less, then more pregnant-looking in a movie of a few days’ time span. One of the themes here is Patrick’s preparations for fatherhood; his role model is the 546-year-old Papa Smurf, voiced by Jonathan Winters, who appeared briefly in the television series. Papa Smurf and his clan—most notably Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry), Grouchy Smurf (George Lopez), and of course Clumsy (Anton Yelchin)—spend most of the film trying to figure out how to get back home. But they teach their host a few Smurfy lessons along the way.

Oh yes, there is a “new” Smurf, a kilt-wearing one called Gutsy voiced by Alan Cumming, whose character indulges his real-life propensity for baring his backside. Other adult-skewing “in” jokes include Perry’s Smurfette admitting “I Kissed a Smurf” and brief glimpses of Liz Smith and Michael Musto at a media party. A scene at the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store merely makes you long for the truly childlike creativity of Tom Hanks in Big.

Hank Azaria tries hard—maybe maniacally too hard—as Gargamel, but Winters as Papa Smurf just seems tired, not old and wise. Perhaps he didn’t like his lines. Too often, when the script calls for something really cute, there’s swearing with “Smurf” as the substitute, operative word.

Worse yet, these Smurfs are oddly inert, without even the mobility of a Claymation character. And the voice personalities don’t seem to be closely aligned with the characters’ respective images; more care went into the movie’s plentiful product placement.