Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Raja Gosnell
Stars: Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Sofia Vergara, Jayma Mays, voices of Alan Cumming, George Lopez, Jonathan Winters, Anton Yelchin, Katy Perry.
I went into this preview of The Smurfs with low expectations. After all, this is a movie based on the 1980’s cartoon characters featuring a bunch of annoyingly upbeat, perennially happy diminutive blue creatures who live in a far way fantasy land. They are all named after peculiar personality traits (thus we get Brainy, Clumsy, Grouchy, etc). The Hanna Barbera produced cartoon series featuring the Smurfs ran on television from 1981-1989, and spawned a lucrative merchandising empire of miniatures, models, games, and toys.
But I was pleasantly surprised by how clever and entertaining this mix of live action and state of the art computer generated animation proved to be. The film adopts an irreverent approach to the mythology of the Smurfs, who were originally created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo (pen name of Pierre Culliford) way back in 1958.
When six of the Smurfs are pursued by their nemesis, the evil scientist Gargamel (played with relish by a scenery-chewing Hank Azaria), they are sucked through a magical portal and transported into modern day New York. The thriving, bustling metropolis is a far cry from their own peaceful and picturesque little village. Gargamel pursues them through the portal intent on capturing them and distilling their essence into a magical potion.
Through a series of mishaps the Smurfs end up in the apartment of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris), the newly promoted head of marketing for a perfume company. He is charged with coming up with an eye-catching campaign for a new perfume line by his demanding boss Odile (Sofia Vergara). “I want people who will give me what I need, not what I want,” she tells Patrick. Winslow is already anxious about the birth of his child with wife Grace (Jayma Mays), and the pressures placed on him add to his stress. The Smurfs have to harness the power of the blue moon in order to get home. Through helping the Smurfs elude Gargamel and return to their homeland Winslow learns the importance of parenthood and responsibility.
The film deals with universal themes of family, fatherhood, responsibility, and courage. There’s some shallow cultural stereotypes, and plenty of product placement throughout the film. While the Smurfs may have seemed kitsch in the 1980’s this great little film makes them relevant for the 21st century, and apparently the producers at Sony already have plans to make a couple more films in the series. The Smurfs actually succeeds brilliantly where the Alvin And The Chipmunks and Garfield films stalled.
The script has been fashioned from Peyo’s original concept by four writers. It is surprisingly witty, given the fact that the team of Jay Sherick and David Ronn recently gave us the lame comedy Zookeeper. Most of the bite in the writing probably comes from J David Stem and David Weiss, who are better known for their family friendly fare like Shrek 2, The Rugrats Movie, etc.
Former editor turned director Raja Gosnell (Home Alone 3, Scooby-Doo, etc) is a dab hand at this sort of thing, and he keeps things moving at a slick pace. The film also uses the 3D process well, and a couple of sequences have obviously been designed with this technology in mind. And the cityscape of New York is also well used.
Harris is often willing to send up his screen image, as is evidenced in his involvement in the Harold And Kumar movies, and here he is again quite game. He is quite likeable, even though he is largely playing opposite a green screen and interacting with cuddly little blue creatures. As Gargamel, Azaria is clearly having a ball, and there are plenty of funny moments involving his hapless cat, Azrael, a fantastic digital creation. The end credits assures us that no CGI cats were harmed during the making of the film.
A great vocal cast has been assembled to voice the Smurfs, that includes Alan Cumming and George Lopez. Veteran comic Jonathan Winters provides the voice for the 500 year old Papa Smurf, the heroic patriarch of the clan, while Anton Yelchin (fro the recent The Beaver and the remake of Fright Night, etc) provides the voice for the appropriately named Clumsy, who becomes an unexpected hero. And popular singer Katy Perry provides the voice for the feisty sole female Smurfette.
The Smurfs is a film that should prove enjoyable to audiences of all ages. There is plenty of clever dialogue, in-jokes and movie references to entertain older audiences, while the younger audiences will enjoy the physical comedy and the sight gags.