In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit right from the start that I have no particularly nostalgic affection for “The Smurfs.” I don’t remember watching the cartoon much as a child, though I caught enough episodes to know the basics. It would certainly rank far below classic “Looney Tunes,” “Tom & Jerry,” “Thundercats,” “She-Ra” and “Transformers” on the list of animated TV series that I now warmly recall. Mostly, I remember that one of my cousins had a vast display of Smurfs collectibles, and I was more fascinated by his fascination than I was with the blue cartoon critters themselves.
But my 4 1/2-year-old son was intrigued enough with the trailers for the new live-action/animated movie “The Smurfs” to seek out a few episodes of the ’80s Hanna-Barbera series on cable. Gabe liked them enough to ask to see them again and to beg to go to the advance screening of the movie, but those old cartoons not only failed to spark my interest, they literally put me to sleep.
Between my disinterest in the cartoon and director Raja Gosnell’s previous credits as the helmer of the “Scooby-Doo” movie and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” my expectations were naturally low for the big-screen iteration of “The Smurfs.” But the first few minutes did capture my imagination: We’re introduced to Belgian artist Peyo’s little blue creations in their natural habitat, a charming fairy-tale village filled with mushroom houses and 101 brightly colored denizens all living in perfect harmony that happens to look great in 3D.
Each chipper Smurf is part of one big happy family, led by wise patriarch Papa Smurf (voice of Jonathan Winters, and it’s good to hear from him even if he has a rather boring and understated role), and is named after his main characteristic, except for the lone female, Smurfette (voiced by pop star Katy Perry). The movie does finally reveal why there’s only one girl in Smurf Village, but unfortunately doesn’t reveal any other interesting Smurf secrets to liven up the story.
The only problem in their joyful world is the wicked wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria in live action but under layers of latex makeup and a bald cap), who with his (digitally rendered) cat Azrael relentlessly pursues the Smurfs in the hopes of catching one and extracting its “magical essence” to use in his own hapless spell-casting. Like any villain worth his salt, Gargamel wants to be the most powerful wizard in the world, and the underrated Azaria gleefully goes for broke, making his baddie the best part of the movie.
Fortunately for the Smurfs, an enchanted barrier prevents Gargamel from find their village, until Clumsy Smurf (voice of Anton Yelchin) accidentally reveals the location one fateful day. As they try to escape the wizard’s clutches, Clumsy, Papa, Smurfette, Brainy (Fred Armisen), Grouchy (George Lopez) and Gutsy (Alan Cumming, who matches his natural Scottish brogue with the kilt-clad character) get sucked into a magical vortex that transports them from their woodlands home to modern-day New York City.
Once “The Smurfs” take Manhattan, the movie follows pretty much the same pattern as countless fish-out-of-water New York tales, from “Enchanted” to “Crocodile Dundee.” The movie is so derivative that if a blue moppet with an Australian accent had turned up and tried to figure out a bidet, I would not have been one bit surprised.
The good news for the Smurfs is that they are taken in by harried marketing executive Patrick Winslow (“How I Met Your Mother’s” Neil Patrick Harris) and his kindly pregnant wife Grace (“Glee’s” Jayma Mays). The bad news is that Gargamel and Azrael have followed them through the magic vortex and are hot on their trail in NYC.
Patrick works for a high-end cosmetics firm, where he gets a daunting assignment from his mercurial, high-powered boss Odile (“Modern Family’s” Sofía Vergara): redesign an entire campaign for the launch of a new line in just two days. Along with workplace stress, the Manhattanite has expectant parent anxiety, and his wife seems to think that wrangling a flock Smurfs is good practice for parenthood (granted, it does seem less messy than keeping a dog in an apartment).
Although Papa Smurf has plenty of reassuring wisdom to proffer, worries about high-stress careers and impending parenthood aren’t exactly the most engaging themes for children. But there’s a reason Patrick becomes the main character over the course of the film: The Smurfs are by nature one-dimensional characters, and one-dimensional characters get boring fast. It’s the same reason that Walt Disney made Snow White the protagonist and the Seven Dwarfs the comic relief.
So, Gosnell and the pack of four screenwriters fill the gap with lots of sight gags, pratfalls, puns and use of the word “Smurf” in place of profanity, which was a lot funnier when it was woodland creatures using “cuss” in Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” And since the model here is clearly the blockbuster “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” there is a painful musical sequence in which “Rock Band”-playing Patrick and some of the Smurfs mash-up the Run DMC/Aerosmith version of “Walk This Way” with the la-la-la Smurf theme. Ugh.
Of course the Smurfs will end up at F.A.O. Schwarz. Naturally, Gargamel will stumble upon Belvedere Castle in Central Park when he needs a new laboratory. Yes, a trip to a creepy Chinatown locale will become necessary for the Smurfs to recreate the magic to reopen the portal to their village. And in the end, you’ll wish they had never left the confines of their magical village because that seems like where this movie’s magical potential lives.
While Gabe did enjoy the movie more than I, he didn’ t react with the same enthusiasm for “The Smurfs” that he had for most of the other family-friendly films we’ve seen late, including “Winnie the Pooh” and “Cars 2.”