DVD Release Date: December 2, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: July 29, 2011
Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and action)
Genre: Live-Action/Animation, Family 
Run Time: 86 min.
Director: Raja Gosnell
Actors: Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara. 
Voices of: Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry, Alan Cumming, Anton Yelchin, Fred Armisen, George Lopez

An entire generation has passed since the heyday of the Smurfs, a Saturday morning cartoon turned ‘80s cultural phenomenon based on the work of Belgian comic artist Peyo. In that time, the property has dropped off the pop culture radar, living only as a fond relic from Gen-Xers’ childhoods.

Now Sony Animation has resurrected the franchise into a CGI/live-action adventure hybrid with, no doubt, the hopes of getting the next generation to obsess over a blue species other than the Na’vi of Avatar. Unfortunately, beyond the vibrantly detailed and textured animation, they smurf the whole thing up with this strictly by-the-numbers reboot.

Simply titled The Smurfs, this movie lacks the inspiration and purpose that could’ve elevated it above the generic kiddie-fare you expect it to be, and is. Sony played it safe by hiring five screenwriters who’ve made a career out of constructing silly kid-flicks that play well for a few weeks at the box office, remain fairly reliable in the home video market, but are beloved by no one (i.e. Shrek 2, Daddy Day Camp, Are We There Yet?, The Rugrats Movie).

The approach is promising: turn the hand-drawn blue cuties and their secret mushroom society into colorful and lively CGI creations, and then place them in the real world with real people. This mix opens the possibilities, as the primary “Smurfs in the City” narrative suggests.

What the studio missed was an opportunity for a subversive-yet-safe approach with unconventional (yet talented) screenwriters that would play to the sensibilities of adults and kids and even hipsters alike (like what we get from the best of The Muppets or Looney Tunes). What we’re left with for wit is leaning on the patented use of the word smurf in lieu of many adjectives, verbs, adverbs and even profanities that, while admittedly clever, is then milked ad nauseam to the point of utter desperation.

On the run in their own world from the evil sorcerer Gargamel (Hank AzariaNight at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) and his cat Azrael (a digitally enhanced real-life feline), a few of the core Smurfs—Papa, Clumsy, Grouchy, Brainy, Gutsy and Smurfette—get sucked into an aquatic vortex (and Gargamel along with them) that hurls them from their magical utopia and out into New York City on the other side.

The Smurfs take refuge in the apartment of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris, Beastly), an up-and-coming ad exec whose pending promotion to VP of marketing all hangs in the balance of a new campaign he must deliver under a tight deadline just as the Smurfs show up to upend his world as they look for a way to reopen the portal back to their home. Labored zaniness ensues as even Harris’ finely-tuned talents can’t make any of it work. He applies solid comic delivery and timing to material that isn’t remotely funny. 

The adjoining subplot of Gargamel’s pursuit of the Smurfs through this strange new world of NYC lazily resorts to typical fish-out-of-water misunderstandings. Azaria’s broad take is an admirable replication of the Gargamel from the animated series, but as written and directed he’s just a one-note caricatured foil and the comedy falls flat (as does any threat he may pose). Unfortunately the same lack of charisma and dimension could be said for the Smurf voice cast of Jonathan Winters (Papa), Katy Perry (Smurfette), George Lopez (Grouchy) and many others. All talented, and all largely wasted as they provide a lot of energy to lackluster lines and scenarios.

Of course the “heart” is thrown in, too, but in obligatory fashion. Not only is Patrick under pressure at work, but the imminent prospect of fatherhood also has him anxious if he’s ready or not. These fears cause Patrick to run toward his work even more, causing his pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays, TV’s Glee) to worry that he’s “missing it” (the requisite dramatic theme of these family flicks and their over-stressed daddies). 

This all will be resolved, of course, with warm fuzzy platitudes from the old Papa (Smurf) to the new one. The Smurfs teach the humans the lessons they need to learn, the humans likewise help the Smurfs learn lessons of their own, and it’s all tied up in hunky-dory fashion with the potential of more Smurfy adventures to be had in the future (a Smurfs 2 is already in development).

While its themes are to be praised, it’s the perfunctory way in which they’re explored that’s dissatisfying. One need look no farther than the Pixar slate to see that there’s a deeper, more meaningful and powerful way to explore the same themes in a movie that’s also a top-notch family entertainment. The only ambitions apparent in The Smurfs are commercial, not emotional or artful.

Due praise to the animators, though, whose work is first rate and on par with the best that’s being produced today. The fleshing out of the original 2D designs is impressive, especially as they keep fidelity to Peyo’s unique work, as is their interaction with the real-world environment. Regrettably, it’s all at the service of nothing more than a series of slapstick gags strung together by tepid domestic conflict.

If Sony had as much belief in its creative potential as the marketing prospects, The Smurfs could’ve been a very welcome surprise. As is, it’s just a glorified babysitter that will distract little tykes well enough but disappoint everyone else.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: None.
  • Language/Profanity: None. Except as mentioned earlier, the word smurf is used in lieu of many adjectives, verbs, adverbs and even profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: An innocent, loving kiss between a husband and wife; Smurfette says, “I kissed a Smurf and I liked it”; A magical spell causes the breasts and butt of a fully clothed woman to expand to voluptuous curves; A woman strokes a man’s hand flirtatiously with her finger.
  • Violence: Comic violence throughout, often done to Gargamel (hit by a huge swinging log; hit by a speeding bus and plastering him to the front of it); Man kicked in the face by a Smurf; Gargamel is tasered; Smurfs are put in peril by Gargamel.
  • Crudity: Cat vomits hairball; Gargamel examines the vomit; Cat licks itself; Gargamel stands behind a plant in a restaurant as he pees into an ice bucket.
  • Other: Magic spells are cast, both by Gargamel and Smurfs.