Raja Gosnell’s 3D film adaptation of The Smurfs is interesting in that it actually improves some of the cartoon series’ more annoying elements. First and foremost, the filmmakers did not electronically alter the actors’ voices; in the original Hanna Barbara series, every Smurf sounded like a munchkin, in effect masking the vocal performances and the emotions they conveyed. In allowing the voices in the film to really sound like the talents providing them, emotion can come across, and more importantly, the Smurfs now have discernable personalities. This is crucial because, in the original series, I had a very difficult time telling them apart. With the notable exceptions of Smurfette and Papa Smurf, they all looked and sounded exactly the same to me. Now I can tell who’s who. It helps that the plot focuses on just six of them. I’m also grateful that the practice of constantly replacing nouns and adjectives with the word “smurf” has been drastically reduced. Man, does that get tiresome.
This film is goofy, innocuous, and unnecessary, but it’s also harmless fun. I grant you that most adults are unlikely to get much out of it, although they might smile in acknowledgment at a few well-placed cultural references, including those to the original Peyo comic strips. I personally find the idea of Smurfs trying to blend in with taxi billboards funny, especially when one of them promotes the Blue Man Group while the other advertises Blu-ray discs. There’s also Smurfette; the fact that she’s voiced by Katy Perry adds considerable weight to a joke involving a song she knows, which is titled “I Smurfed a Girl, and I Liked It.” And then there’s the fact that the title characters are prone to hum the Smurf theme song at the drop of a hat. The lead human character, played by Neil Patrick Harris, eventually laments about how annoying the song is. Clearly, he has never been to Disneyland and gotten stuck on “it’s a small world.”
The airy plot involves six of the Smurfs, tiny computer generated blue creatures with hats and boots, getting magically transported from their fairy tale village of mushroom huts to New York City. In hot pursuit is the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria), who needs the Essence of Smurf to create a magical potion that will make him invincible. The Smurfs cross paths with Patrick Winslow (Harris), a newly promoted advertising executive for a cosmetics company. His pregnant wife, Grace (Jayma Mays), immediately falls for the Smurfs, and indeed, their disproportionate heads and round eyes make them surprisingly cute. Patrick is under pressure from his overbearing boss, Odile (Sofia Vergara), to create the perfect ad campaign; if he fails, he will be fired. The Smurfs, meanwhile, await the rising of a blue moon, which will enable them to go home, along with a little act of magic. They don’t have access to Papa Smurf’s book of spells, although they do find a conveniently abandoned antique book shop – a cliché typically reserved for fantasy films.
For me, the big surprise of the film is Hank Azaria’s performance, enlivened in large part because of the spot on makeup effects. Some may think it simple, or perhaps even buffoonish. But that’s the thing: Gargamel naturally is a buffoon. He’s given some surprisingly good dialogue, which, along with a healthy dose of family-friendly sarcasm, successfully walks the line between stupidity and evil genius. He even has chemistry with his sidekick, an orange cat named Azrael, which is nothing short of astounding considering the fact that … he’s a cat. Well, half cat, half computer generated character, joined together by the voice of the preeminent animal-noise impersonator Frank Welker (who, incidentally, provided a voice in the original cartoon series). The only unpleasant Gargamel scene involved the film’s one – and thankfully, only one – instance of scatological humor, namely mistaking a champagne bucket for a chamber pot.
As for the Smurfs, they too are brought to life with some notable talent. Jonathan Winters voices Papa Smurf, the father figure his name so obviously suggests. George Lopez voices Grouchy Smurf, who, contrary to what the song says, does not look on the bright side of life. Alan Cumming voices Gutsy Smurf, a Scottish typecast who sounds like a cross between Craig Ferguson and William Wallace. Fred Armisen voices Brainy Smurf, who wears glasses, is long-winded, and can never provide an answer without sounding obnoxious. Finally, there’s Anton Yelchin as the voice of Clumsy Smurf, whose accident-prone tendencies landed his friends in New York. The hillbilly accent of the cartoon series is dropped in favor of a blander, sweeter voice; he sounds exactly the way he a loveable but clumsy soul should sound. After all, it’s not like he wants to be that way on purpose.
The plot seems intentionally designed for children with short attention spans. This may account for the introduced but immediately dropped subplot involving Odile’s interest in Gargamel’s Smurf Essence, a single drop of which can restore youth. But hey, I’ve seen far worse family films in my day. The long and short of it is, The Smurfs is not a great movie, but it is decent summer entertainment for kids – and possibly for the adults that will dutifully take them to see it. It’s also, to my great astonishment, one of the better 3D films I’ve seen in quite some time. The process is quite unnecessary, as it always is, and I maintain my position that you should save yourself the extra money and see it in 2D. All the same, you have to marvel at 3D films with convincing depth perception, especially when they have been converted in post production.
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