It’s understandable if you don’t feel much enthusiasm at the prospect of taking your kid to The Smurfs. You may fear you’re in for a pretty cloying hour and a half.
Created in the late ‘50s by the Belgian comic artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford—as Les Schtroumpfs; the term Smurf was a Dutch rendering—the tiny, blue-skinned forest gnomes were popularized in the U.S. by a highly successful Hanna-Barbera cartoon series which ran from 1981 to 1989.
This was after my time as an observant Saturday morning TV devotee, though I had niece who was a major Smurfhead. The glimpses I got of the show back then struck me as sappy and oppressively sticky-sweet, exactly the sort of goody-two-shoes stuff that took the fun out of watching cartoons.
So it’s a pleasure to report that I thoroughly enjoyed the new feature film version, which mixes computer-animation and live-action, and is set both in “Smurf Village” and in New York City.
I wouldn’t claim that it’s a classic, but it has a buoyantly self-mocking attitude, a generous heart, good performances and, for me at least, a surprising number of laughs. Even the 3D effects work pretty well in this primary-colors fantasy, though it would lose nothing in 2D.
The story begins in “Smurf Village,” where the preparations for the Blue Moon Festival are interrupted by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his familiar, the sinister cat Azrael, who at last locate the Village and rampage around like Japanese monsters.
A half dozen of the Smurfs escape through a magic portal and find themselves in another enchanted land: modern-day Manhattan. They fall into the company of Neil Patrick Harris, as an ambitious young marketing executive for a cosmetics company, and of his pregnant wife (Jayma Mays). The Smurfs and The Yuppies exchange life lessons while attempting to foil Gargamel and kitty, who have followed them through the portal.
This insipid plot works, primarily because the screenwriters—a gaggle, with eye-crossingly unmemorable names—don’t run from the insipidity. They embrace the annoying aspects of the material, like the Smurfs’ relentless cheerfulness, or the repetitive theme song, and turn them to comic advantage by bouncing them off of the New York state of mind.
Director Raja Gosnell moves things along nicely and makes funny use of the NYC settings. Harris and Mays act their hearts out, and the live-action cast includes Sofia Vergara, Tim Gunn and Victor Pagan in a clever bit as a street person.
But the stand-out, unsurprisingly, is Azaria, who puts on a fine over-the-top show as the sarcastic, put-upon Gargamel, requiring nothing more than the cat for a straight-man.
Leading the voice cast are Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf, Anton Yelchin as Clumsy, Fred Armisen as Brainy, George Lopez as Grumpy, Alan Cumming as the kilted Gutsy, and Katy Perry as the sweet, coy Smurfette—as always, the Smurfs have names reflective of their dominant personality traits. In the course of the film, we learn of the existence of Passive-Aggressive Smurf: He’s nice, but you feel bad after you talk to him.
If there’s a sequel, I hope he has a major role.