Review: ‘The Smurfs’ offers harmless, self-aware family laughs

Yep.  There is a movie called “The Smurfs” and it exists.

Is there really nostalgia out there for these characters?  If you grew up in the ’80s watching the cartoon on Saturday mornings, are you really hoping to see a new film with the little blue creatures?  Somehow, I doubt it.  This has struck me as one of the strangest miscalculations of this era of nothing but pre-existing properties since it was first announced, and now, finally, the film will be in theaters this Friday and we’ll see what kind of appetite people actually have for the Smurfs.

One thing is clear, though, having taken both of my children to see the movie last night:  this is not a movie that is aimed at grown-ups.  It was written young, it plays young, and for a six year old and a three year old, it seemed to play just fine.  I’ll give it credit for making the two of them belly laugh every time Hank Azaria, chewing scenery with aplomb as Gargamel, evil wizard foe to the Smurfs, got hurt in some dramatic fashion.  Listening to them laugh like that is exactly why I took them, and it worked well enough on that level.

I’m still unclear about how this weird new subgenre of movies even got started.  I guess this is one of those “benefits” of the age of CGI.  Now we’ve got this whole fistful of movies in which a little CGI creation (or, in many cases, a number of little CGI creations) moves into the home of a sitcom star or a comedy star looking for a family hit, only to wreak adorable havoc before teaching the human a valuable life lesson, which is usually “stop working so hard and hang out with your family more, you asshole.”  These movies are largely the same, with the only difference being what the CGI thingamajig looks like.  The formula has, at this point, been firmly established, and it seems like “The Smurfs” follows the playbook closely.  One thing they’ve done here that you won’t see in, say, “Alvin and The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” is introduce a sense of humor that openly mocks the property that’s being adapted, and I’ll be honest… it makes “The Smurfs” into even more of a Teflon film than it might otherwise have been.  When you have characters in your film questioning and laughing at the internal logic of your mythology, it’s obvious that none of this is meant to matter.  By the point they consult a cartoon book by Peyo to learn things about themselves, “reality” has been so fundamentally left behind that it almost seems pointless to complain.

Hank Azaria, as I mentioned, plays Gargamel, and if you do end up enjoying the film, it will be largely because of him.  He has developed a reputation as a guy who will commit completely to a big comedy role, and as with “Night At The Museum 2,” he is better than the material he’s given here, and he makes something that could be potentially deadly on the page work because of the choices he makes.  He spends much of his time talking to his animated cat Azrael, but there’s a weird stretch of the film where he meets Odile (Sofia Vergara), the owner of the cosmetics company that employs Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), and she becomes determined to harness Gargamel’s magic to create an anti-aging potion.  That entire storyline is abandoned so quickly and in such a strange way that it feels like a reshoot must have happened at some point to prevent Vergara’s character from being a villain.  Kids won’t notice, I’m guessing, but it’s so abrupt that it just doesn’t make sense.  Ultimately, it also puts the emphasis back on Gargamel, which is really all that matters.

The CG for the Smurfs is well-done in terms of feeling like they have a physical presence, and the 3D in the film is effective.  I’m curious how the voice-casting for the Smurfs happened, though, because it’s a bizarre range of people.  Jonathan Winters brings a certain degree of warmth to his work as Papa Smurf, but more than anything, I just keep picturing him in a recording booth trying to make sense of what he was being asked to record.  Katy Perry is Smurfette, Fred Armisen is Brainy, and George Lopez is Grouchy, and none of them are pushed to do anything difficult at all.  It’s very surface-level stuff.  Anton Yelchin as Clumsy has probably the closest thing to an arc in the film, and he’s entirely okay in the part.  Meanwhile, Alan Cumming plays Gutsy as a broad Scottish stereotype, one of the weirdest choices in the movie.  The two main human leads, Harris and “Glee” star Jayma Mays, do what they can with some truly awful dialogue, and I’ll say this:  they incorporate the idea of what the Smurfs teach the humans with more thematic elegance than these films normally manage.  Mays is pregnant in the film, and Harris is worried about impending responsibility and what it means to be a father, so their encounter with the Smurfs ends up teaching him what it means to be responsible for others.  Thankfully, they don’t hammer that maddening Hollywood idea that being a hard-working employed person is the same as being a terrible human being, something that we see in these “family” films over and over again.  It helps that Harris and Mays are both so winning in general.  He’s one of those guys who is just plain likable, and Mays is so adorable that she’s practically a cartoon herself.

This is the sort of film that is totally review-proof.  If parents are already determined to take their kids to see this, they’ll go, and it doesn’t matter what percentage the film has on Rotten Tomatoes.  Besides, it seems that many critics are so angry at the mere existence of the thing that they are pounding it like it hurt their loved ones.  I’ve seen most of these films, and this is nowhere near the worst example of the genre.  If you want to take that as praise, it’s as close as I can get.  If my boys were going to rate the movie, I’m sure it would get at least a letter grade higher than what I would give it, and it’s a film that is designed for them expressly, so consider that when deciding if you’re going to take your own kids.

“The Smurfs” opens everywhere this Friday.