It's my week to work the treacherous slope of the family-pandering CGI film. As rote as all these films are, they're entirely dependent on the audiences sympathy toward the star and how well the ridiculous nature of the surroundings translates for entertainment. I like Kevin James, found the weirdness of Zookeeper just bizarre enough to have an edge, and found it entertaining overall. On the flipside, Furry Vengeance featured a desperate Brendan Fraser, completely inept filming, and product placement galore, so it wasn't a keeper.
Now comes The Smurfs, one of the most deliberately positioned adaptations of a boring nostalgic property to grace the screen. What should have been a disaster on the scale of Furry Vengeance instead shows an acidic heart behind it's post-Baby Boomer veneer. The production team of The Smurfs took clear delight in creating self-skewering moments for Gargamel, the inept yet strangely powerful and blue obsessed sorcerer, and trudged through the painful, product laced moments with the Smurfs themselves.
Were the moments with the Smurfs not so painfully dull I would have almost thought this an ironic positioning of the ultimate Communist commune as something that would need Capitalist excess in order to survive. Why else would the hippie-dippie Smurfs be magically deposited into the life of corporate ladder climbing Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), who is ignoring his cartoonishly wide-eyed wife Grace (Jayma Mays)? Well, in a better developed kids film which makes me long for the days of Rocky and Bullwinkle, it would have been more for the purpose of skewering both in a playful fashion instead of making an initially weak willed character to position for a third act change of heart.
Instead we've got the do it yourself plot-o-matic in full force. It conjures up some hokey about a blue moon (which, in one of many dragging moments, Patrick needs Wikipedia in order to research), magic spells, and a black dress clad Sofia Vergara as a make-up company CEO who wants to harness those mystical forces to make herself forever young. Since the Smurfs are written as one-dimensionally as their cartoon forebears there's little at stake, and none of the vocal performances (ranging from Jonathan Winters to Katy Perry) come out memorably.
While I was prepared for the Smurfs to be dull, I was very split on the human cast. Neil Patrick Harris, usually a go-to dynamo for these sorts of low rent outlets for comedy, strangely dials down everything about his normally outsize personality. Only Sofia Vergara is in on the joke, overpowering her scenes with Harris and continuing her tradition established on TV from Modern Family of becoming one of the leading lady comedy greats. Her grotesque partial seduction scene with Gargamel is a small wonder, played to the hilt by all parties involved .
Speaking of Gargamel, he is the savior of The Smurfs (ironically enough) and almost salvages the movie by himself. He's introduced by hosting a puppet show where he notes Papa Smurf "...lives alone in the woods with 99 sons and one daughter. Nothing wrong with that" and maintains his not-obsession with the little blue connivers through a constant meta-commentary with his cat. All of this is delivered with exquisite relish by a delightfully hammy and physically game Hank Azaria, who is responsible for far more belly laughs from this sly dialogue than I was prepared for.
In spite of the intelligence and acid brought to Azaria's role, it doesn't change the inherent annoyance of the Smurf's and some of the atrocious plotting. The worst example comes from an extended sequence where Patrick and the Smurfs play Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" in it's entirety on Guitar Hero, concluding with Smurfette walking over a vent in her new dress. It's everything wrong with family films condensed into a five minute span, combining un-commented upon creepiness, deliberate product placement, bad "rapping" and a poorly choreographed CGI dance sequence.
It's everything a rich, white, out-of-touch corporate executive would want to see in a film (Tex Richman of The Muppets would love this flick). But it's nice to see the creative team have their jollies where they can. I'm holding out for the sequel, a Smurfless film where the world is conquered by Gargamel and he's forced everyone to endure his hour-long variety show.
The Smurfs (2011)
Directed by Raja Gosnell.
Screenplay by J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick, David Ronn.
Starring Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Jonathan Winters, Sofia Vergara and Katy Perry.