In the introductory voiceover to the animated reboot of the ‘Smurfs’ films, there is a brief glimmer of hope that this may not be your average, low-aiming spin on an existing IP with built-in adult fans – aim for their nostalgia and now they can take their kids along too! As Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) talks us through the residents of Smurf village, he begins with the classics (think Grouchy Smurf, Gullible Smurf) before their names and defining traits become more and more obscure and tongue in cheek, until we’re looking at Sub-Mariner Smurf and Chewing-on-Tables Smurf. It’s a good start. Any goodwill is pretty quickly blown though, as the narrative jumps into a clumsy and only sparingly funny mishmash of staple narratives, including the lead character wondering ‘who am I?’ and the protagonists searching for a lost civilisation.
Unlike the other residents of the village, Smurfette (Demi Lovato) is a girl (cue gasps)! While other Smurfs are stamped with their defining traits and therefore know what is expected of them, Smurfette is not so fortunate and she is left grappling with her apparent lack of identity. Neither the unrequited affections of Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello) nor the dominant-trait-identifying inventions of Brainy Smurf can answer her questions or alleviate her existential crisis. When a routine Smurfboarding excursion goes awry, Smurfette stumbles upon clues pointing towards the titular lost Smurf village, and sets off into the Forbidden Forest with Hefty, Brainy and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) in tow to find it (if ‘Harry Potter’ taught moviegoers anything, it was that bad things are waiting in anything called the Forbidden Forest).
Hot on their stubby blue tails is the ‘evil’ wizard Gargamel (a painfully hammy Rainn Wilson) with his two familiars, beleaguered tabby Azrael and alternately-goofy-and-terrifying vulture Monty. Can our four heroes find the lost village before Gargamel? The answer will not surprise anyone familiar with G rated family fare. Papa Smurf, whose curfew was broken by the four runaways, is also in pursuit.
The script, by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon, does its best to give Smurfette a genuine arc – no small task given how frequently her role in Smurf films and other media is simply to be the ‘cute one’. However, it’s extremely predictable (where Smurfette’s ‘what is my purpose?’ questioning will arrive should be clear to anyone over the age of eight after the first ten minutes) and a lot of the gags fall appallingly flat. I did enjoy a running bit about Nosy Smurf’s voyeuristic presence hovering outside windows and doors in the Smurfs’ village, but when this is a highlight in a kids movie it doesn’t say much for the rest of the jokes. The children in my screening responded to very few of the verbal jokes (I admittedly cracked maybe half-a-dozen smiles throughout), although some of the slapstick found its mark with the target audience.
That’s another thing – ‘Smurfs: The Lost Village’ skews very young. Its narrative is undemanding, but so is its flat and glossy animation. Director Kelly Asbury, who directed the critical and commercial smash ‘Shrek 2’, displays little invention or verve with his images. Given the long history of the characters, perhaps a narrative that plays it safe with people’s childhood memories was expected, as was character animation that stayed true to the original comics. But there is no excuse for everything else looking so dull and unimaginative. The main takeaway from viewing is that it was clearly designed for 3D, with plenty of characters and objects swinging towards the audience, yet it’s isn’t even being exhibited with the extra dimension in Australia. Admittedly, one sequence bucks this trend, because our heroes go rafting down a river that defies all laws of physics, instead floating in the air like a thick transverse wave composed water. It’s an enjoyable ride, but it’s over far too quickly.
I have not seen the recent live-action Smurf films (released in 2011 and 2013), although I take it that audiences and critics were unimpressed. It looks like the trend has continued in 2017, with a Smurfs reboot that is content to aim low and cash in on the popularity of its characters.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting