(by Dustin Putman
With creatively middling, financially prosperous live-action/CGI amalgamations already created for "Scooby-Doo," "Garfield," "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and "Yogi Bear," it was only a matter of time before Hollywood dusted off "The Smurfs" property. Based on a 1958 comic strip by Peyo and a subsequent 1980s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, the film, to be as kind as possible, did not look promising based on the obnoxious, lowest-common-denominator trailers and television ads. To be more blunt, it looked wretched, yet another miserable excuse for a family movie that took a well-loved (in some circles, at least) franchise and turned it into a disingenuous, faux-hip, pop-culture-obsessed shadow of its former self. Having director Raja Gosnell (2008's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") in the driver's seat and writers J. David Stern & David N. Weiss (2007's "Daddy Day Camp") and Jay Scherick & David Ronn (2011's "Zookeeper") behind the script pages didn't exactly alleviate fears. Much like the deceptively resourceful little blue guys of the title, however, it's wise to never judge a book—or a film—by its cover. "The Smurfs" won't be an awards contender anytime soon, but it is altogether sweetly smurfier that anyone could have predicted. Article continues below
In a magical forest sits the peaceful, loving community of Smurf Village, and in Smurf Village lives the mythical blue Smurfs, each one no more than three apples high. As they cheerfully prepare for the Festival of the Blue Moon, evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his long-suffering feline henchman Azrael prepare to swoop in and steal the Smurfs' essence—the one thing with the ability to make Gargamel mighty and powerful. Heading in the wrong direction as they flee through the woods, several of the Smurfs—among them, Papa (voiced by Jonathan Winters), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Gutsy (Alan Cumming), Grouchy (George Lopez), and lone female Smurfette (Katy Perry)—find themselves sucked into a watery vortex that spits them out in New York City's Central Park. Hot on their heels are Gargamel and Azrael, all of the above decided fish out of water in the "real world." As Papa tries to figure out a way to return home, the Smurfs take up residence with human couple Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and pregnant Grace (Jayma Mays), who are understandably shocked by the appearance of tiny blue people in their apartment. Patrick is stressed out as it is—his promotion to VP of marketing at cosmetics company Anjelou is on the line if he doesn't wow his boss Odile (Sofia Vergara) with a knock-out ad campaign—but it is in his friendship with the Smurfs that he's about to learn some valuable life lessons about what it means to be true to yourself and a good father.
There are no two ways about it. Kids will adore "The Smurfs" and adults will be nostalgically transported back to their own childhoods, reminded of the kinds of warm, adventurous films they used to love in the 1970s and '80s. Director Raja Gosnell cannot resist a few needless, predictable flourishes—occasional potty humor; a rock song sing-along; countless double-entendres involving all forms of the word "smurf"—but beyond that is an unexpectedly gentle, valiant comedy with plenty of worthwhile messages to send out to younger viewers. A less consistently witty but still pleasing take-off of 2007's "Enchanted," also about fairy tale characters ending up in modern-day Manhattan, the film's plot is simple and straightforward, its pacing unassumingly nimble for running a lengthy 103 minutes.
Neil Patrick Harris (2011's "Beastly") and Jayma Mays (2009's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop") are game participants even as they must act most of their scenes opposite invisible creatures added in post-production. Their interactions with the Smurfs aren't seamless—when the humans hold them, it still looks like they're cupping the air—but the CGI effects are otherwise detailed and attractive, their cartoonishness part of their charm. As Patrick and Grace, loving married put upon by approaching parenthood and work demands, Harris and Mays get more to do than the average human performers typically receive in this sort of movie. As Odile, Patrick's imperious boss, Sofia Vergara (2005's "Lords of Dogtown") nicely twists expectations by proving to have a heart behind her tough, all-business exterior. The Smurfs, meanwhile, are adorable in their innocent goodness, with Jonathan Winters wise and lived-in as the voice of Papa, Anton Yelchin (2011's "The Beaver") well-cast as the underappreciated Clumsy, and musician Katy Perry endearing and fun as Smurfette, who delights in having her very first gal pal in Grace. Sure, the Smurfs are square—they never miss an opportunity to belt out their theme song or throw "smurf" into the conversation, as in, "We're up a smurfin' creek without a paddle!"—but that makes them all the more lovable.
Best of all, though, is Hank Azaria (2009's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), disappearing behind the balding scalp, bulbous nose and waving cloaks of one of the best live-action bad guys in recent years. Like a great animated Disney villain who has jumped clear off the page—for another comparison, think a cross between the Peculiar Purple Pie Man from "Strawberry Shortcake" and Hermione Gingold's pancake witch from 1969's "Winter of the Witch"—Azaria has a field day with Gargamel, perfectly combining a comic side with a quirky, off-kilter creepiness. With the forever tossed-about Azrael by his side, Gargamel is both bumbling and threatening, in one scene confusing a homeless man for a fellow sorcerer and in another going out of his way to walk through the steam coming up from New York City sewer grates. "I love emerging dramatically through the smoke!" he exclaims with a mischievous grin. "It makes me feel so deliciously mysterious!"
As the Smurfs sit around Patrick's and Grace's apartment late one night, reminiscing about home and the people they've left behind, Smurfette remarks, "You know who I don't miss? Passive-Aggressive Smurf. He always makes you feel so bad about yourself." Skirting the off-color line without becoming inappropriate, it's this little extra effort—not only in the writing, but on all fronts—that lifts "The Smurfs" above the comparatively uninspired level of its like-styled cinematic ilk. The more overt slapstick comedy rarely works, but it's the tricky wordplay, the energetic go-getter tone, and a special mindfulness toward compassion and sincerity that iron out the problem areas. Through his friendships with the Smurfs, Patrick is reassured about becoming a father, standing up for what he believes in, and recognizing how special Grace is to him. On the Smurf side, they learn what it means to embrace teamwork and to cherish each other for their talents rather than get hung up on whatever their weak spots might be. As for Gargamel, well, he wishes he could quit Azrael. "The Smurfs" is breezily winning, a whimsical blend of silliness and morality with an honest-to-goodness vision to go along with its gimmicky name value.