Review: ‘The Smurfs’

1. It is strange to live in a cultural universe in which the Smurfs were ever a thing. Forget the inherent creepiness of a village in which 99 little blue men hang out with one little blue woman, or the fact that they have no particularly ethos or code other than "whistle while one works" and "replace unspeakable vulgarities with the name of your species." To me, the strangest aspect to the Smurfs' popularity -- if you can still refer to the Smurfs as "popular" -- is that there is literally nothing to them. The only reason they have personality traits at all -- just one, by the way, per Smurf -- is so that you can tell them apart. Otherwise, they're indistinguishable. They are a collective empty blue maw. They are collectibles that don't have anything that makes them collectible. They are blue, and one of them is old, and one of them is a girl, and one of them has glasses, and that's it.

2. "The Smurfs" doesn't resolve this essential problem with the Smurfs, not that it particularly tries to. It's a by-the-numbers, minimal-effort cash grab that doesn't try to stretch the Smurfs into anything other than the toy product line they are. The movie's one "gimmick" is to bring the Smurfs to New York City, but of course this is the New York City of late night hosts' monologues, with crazy homeless people and Joan Rivers and M&M stores. Am I saying that I would have liked to see how Brainy Smurf handled himself in Bensonhurst? Yes, I suppose I am saying that.

3. Only six Smurfs make the trip, and I'm gonna impress myself by being able to name them: Papa, Smurfette, Grouchy, Brainy, Clumsy and some strange Scottish one. (Why does an enchanted forest have its own Scotland? Do they have a Middle East? Is there sectarian violence?) They're followed by Gargamel, played by a little-too-game-for-this-business Hank Azaria, who is obsessed with capturing and distilling the Smurfs' "essence," which sounds gross. They stumble across a young advertising executive played by Neil Patrick Harris, and it is of immense credit to Doogie that he is able to play this all straight, that he's able to say, "Oh, I Smurf all of you guys!" to a green screen with an adequate amount of sincerity and dignity. The Smurfs help him learn what it means to be a "Papa," and he helps them get back to their forest. Also, they stop at one point and sing "Walk This Way" while Harris plays Rock Band. Performances like this are always underrated. Harris must have constantly been fighting off urges both to giggle and to cry.

4. The movie is full of inexplicable little oddities. For some reason, "Project Runway" host Tim Gunn is in the movie, but he is playing someone other than Tim Gunn, which I believe breaks some sort of unwritten celebrity law about famous people whose personalities are too recognizable to play fictional minor characters. (This is doubly confusing because Gunn's character still says his "Make It Work" catchphrase.) During one scene, we have a reaction shot of Liz Smith for no reason; the gossip columnist had heretofore not been in the movie, or even referred to. Also, Belvedere Castle in Central Park becomes an impromptu lab for Gargamel, which made me wonder if he ran into The Count in there. I must give the film credit for a legitimate good joke: The Smurfs lament missing all their old friends back in the enchanted forest, except for the unfortunate Passive-Aggressive Smurf. "He always says things that make you feel happy at the time, but then when he leaves the room, you feel sad."

5. Otherwise, this is standard fish-out-of-water kid schlock that basically replicates the plot of "Hop" -- and boy, what a plot it was! -- and merely switches Smurfs for the Easter Bunny. (They even use Katy Perry as the voice of Smurfette, leading to a deeply dispiriting "I kissed a Smurf, and I liked it!" joke.) I'd be offended by the almost total lack of thought and imagination involved in the creation of "The Smurfs," but, really, the film's just being true to the spirit of the Smurfs themselves. They can't even be bothered to look different from one another. If your kid loves this, your kid needs to read a book, or even, heck, play a video game. At least you can tell video game characters apart.

Grade: D+