“That film raped my childhood” is the all too frequent, and somewhat disturbing, mantra of those folks who feel blighted by the audacity of studios who continue to exploit cherished childhood memories. The Internet has undeniably helped spread the breadth and reach of this outrage, with children of the 1980s feeling the most aggrieved at tampering with the classics. One can’t help but imagine a Regency Era child, still clinging on to dear life in 1940, shaking his trembling and liver-spotted little fist at the travesty of daring to rework Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into a moving picture. The latest recipient of the update treatment is The Smurfs, originally created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in 1958, and popularised by the American Hanna-Barbera animated series of the 1980s.
As the Smurfs prepare for the Blue Moon Festival, Papa Smurf (voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters, National Lampoon’s Cattle Call) has a vision of Smurfs in cages, seemingly brought about by Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin, Fright Night) and resulting in making the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria, Hop) all-powerful. When Clumsy accidentally leads Gargamel and his cat Azrael into Smurf Village, Papa, Clumsy, Smurfette (singer Katy Perry), Grouchy (George Lopez, Rio), Brainy (Fred Armisen, Easy A) and Gutsy (Alan Cumming, Burlesque) manage to escape into a nearby cave. The Smurfs emerge from a portal in the mystical land of New York, where they encounter stressed ad man Patrick Wilson (Neil Patrick Harris, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore), struggling to not only come up with a new fashion campaign but prepare for the birth of his first child with Grace (Jayma Mayes, TV’s Glee). Turning his life upside down, the Smurfs must find a way home before it’s too late – all with Gargamel still on their little blue tails.
Following the same pattern as Hop and Alvin and the Chipmunks, not to mention most of the primary plot points as well, The Smurfs places the CGI animated blue critters against real backdrops, at least as real as this version of New York can get. It may have been preferable to have a fully CG-animated Smurfs feature, but given that there has already been five years worth of stories on the small screen, what else could be said about Smurf Village that hasn’t already been done? More to the point, some of the flattest points in the film are during these opening scenes, which play more like extended advertisements for a line of toys that will no doubt flood the market for years to come. When the action hits New York, the film takes on a very different turn, with a few unexpected moments of genuine comedy, although this too provides a few none-too-subtle opportunities to plug Sony’s Blu-ray and a contrived sequence in a toy store.
The Smurfs themselves are well animated, although for most it will be hard to replace the nostalgic 2D vision of the little blue creatures who refuse to wear shirts, but the real stars here are…the real stars. Neil Patrick Harris takes time out from the womanising character he plays in both the Harold and Kumar films and TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and fans of Mayes TV work will find much to like here. Yet it is the consummate genius of Hank Azaria, known to most as the voice of just about everybody on The Simpsons, who actually manages to carry off the impossible and make Gargamel not only a convincingly slimey character, but a funny one to boot.
The Smurfs doesn’t always hit the mark, of course, and the attempt to please both adults and children means that the target is stretched a little wide at times. Many of the voices, particularly Katy Perry and Alan Cumming, are pretty much stunt casting, and the introduction of new Smurfs Gutsy and Crazy is a little baffling given the hundred-odd established characters who are barely used at all. Narrator Smurf, on the other hand, is self-aware genius and a reference to a Passive-Aggressive Smurf (that “nobody misses”) is possible the best line in the film. There’s also a very unexpected reference to Brokeback Mountain as the credits begin to roll, and it is at this point that some of those cherished childhood memories may begin to evaporate.
The Smurfs is released in Australia on 1 September (TAS), 8 September (QLD) and 15 September (NSW/VIC/SA/WA) from Sony.