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In recent years the phrase, “Stop raping my childhood,” has fallen into common parlance. People are often over-protective of the things that they held near and dear when they were children and have no interest in seeing it modernized. Take for example, The Smurfs. The characters, created by the Belgian artist Peyo, became part of pop culture in the 1980s when millions of kids watched the animated program as it ran for 256 episodes from 1981 to 1989. It’s the people who fell in love with The Smurfs during this time that are most concerned about Raja Gosnell’s new film, the hardcore fans worried that it will “rape their childhood.” While determining whether or not a “rape” occurred will be up to individual members of the audience, what can be said is the new movie is not what these once beloved characters deserve.
Though the movie has its bright spots – all of them thanks to the fantastic Hank Azaria’s portrayal of the villainous Gargamel – most of The Smurfs isn’t so much horrifically bad as it is exceedingly dull. The movie never attempts to work any harder than it has to, leaning on its culturally-established characters while making no effort to try anything original other than placing its leads in a new environment. Though it’s ultimately a movie for kids, the greatest disappointment is that it will do nothing for those old enough to have remembered when the little blue creatures first became popular.
Opening in Smurf Village, the tiny mythical beings are preparing for the Blue Moon Festival when Gargamel finally finds them. Attempting to run away, six of the Smurfs (voiced by Jonathan Winters, Alan Cumming, Katy Perry, Fred Armisen, George Lopez, Anton Yelchin) are sucked through a vortex and land in modern-day New York City. Taking shelter with a young married couple expecting a child (Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays), the crew must find their way back to Smurf Village before Gargamel, who was also sucked through the vortex, finds them and steals their magical essence.
What ends up damning the film is a script that’s so completely lifeless it never manages to justify its own existence. Seemingly paralyzed in fear of changing Peyo’s creations in any way, each Smurf is more of an archetype than a character, simply filling gaps in the story where needed. Though the idea of bringing the Smurfs into the real world is new, the New York City setting is never explored or utilized in any specific or interesting way. The Smurfs entering the world of the human couple is meant to symbolize the fact that they are about to bring a child into the world, but the metaphor is so ham-fisted and obvious that it loses its effect. The inescapable reality here is that this movie was made because people know who the Smurfs are and the studio felt they could make money off a recognizable brand.
In spite of itself, The Smurfs is buoyed by the performance by Hank Azaria who, unlike the rest of the film, is actually hysterical. Undergoing a complete physical transformation and knowingly hamming it up, he seems to be the only person in the movie who actually understands why a Smurfs movie could be fun. Winking at the audience the entire way, Azaria’s cartoonish approach actually gives the adult viewers something to look forward to while the plot sluggishly moves along. He steals the spotlight in such a fantastic way that the already dull everything-else seems even worse by comparison.
I was only two years old when The Smurfs animated series ended its run, so while I can’t claim any real personal affection for the franchise, I do understand the love for these smurfy blue characters and can see the potential in them. Sadly, Raja Gosnell’s film doesn’t capitalize on any of it. While Azaria steal scenes, the movie around him is constructed with such a dead on arrival, paint-by-numbers approach that it fails on almost every level.