Saturday, October 22, 2011

Smurf Me With A Smurfin' Smurf

As you probably know, I'm a dad. And the spread between my children means that, at any given moment in the past 20 years, I've had to see dumb movies. Given our limited time and the existence of Pixar, I've been fortunate enough to steer the kids mostly to the better films, but I have not escaped the occasional Alvin and the Chipmunks, Dungeons and Dragons (okay, I probably would've seen it anyway) and, now, Smurfs.

The Smurfs is a comic strip from the '60s, by a Belgian dude who probably got drunk with one of his buddies and decided it would be hilarious to replace arbitrary nouns and verbs in a sentences with "Smurf". I mean, seriously, that's how it started, though the word was "schtroumph". From there he made little blue dudes, basically in the mold of Disney's dwarfs, where each Smurf's name matches their personality, like Happy Smurf, Sneezy Smurf or Sleepy Smurf—at one point everyone agrees that they don't much like Passive-Aggressive Smurf. Or, rather confusingly, if not their personality, their name matches their trade, like Plumber Smurf or Gigolo Smurf.

Kidding, of course. There are no plumbers or gigolos in Smurf village. There is a lot of toilet humor in the movie, however. I mean that literally, with Smurfs constantly falling into the damn things. And there are no gigolos because Smurfs are all male except for one, Smurfette.

Smurfette was created by the Smurf's evil nemesis Gargamel in order to destroy their society. Seems all it takes to mess up paradise is a chick.

Gargamel is a degenerate middle-aged wizard who wears a bathrobe and is constantly after Smurf essence for its magical powers, which are considerable. Considerable, but completely unavailable to the Smurfs themselves for some unexplored reason. Fortunately, Gargamel's incompetence is only exceeded by his general creepiness.

The story, such as it is concerns, Clumsy Smurf accidentally leading Gargamel to the hidden Smurf village, and the ensuing rampage (which is kind of horrifying) causes a group of Smurfs to go to the forbidden zone which contains a portal to New York City, wherein they meet up with a young(ish) ad exec on the verge of either great success or failure. So they have to get back before Gargamel captures them and, I dunno, takes over the world or something.

There are some problems with this film, to say the least. The first and foremost is that it's a really stupid concept. I mean, Smurfs in general are. There's just not much to hang your hat on there. You know what Grouchy Smurf. Gutsy Smurf and Clumsy Smurf are gonna do at any given moment.

The second one is that the voices don't work. Not that they're bad, exactly. It's just that they don't really seem to be coming out of the Smurfs themselves most of the time. Sound mixing fail.

The third is that Gargamel usually comes off like a creepy perverted avuncular figure than exactly evil. I mean, he is evil. His intentions seem to be to enslave the Smurfs, after all. But, probably to avoid being too scary, he's more of a weirdly comic figure. His cat, Azrael is a CGI disaster, combining a completely literal cat with human facial expressions and movement. Pure nightmare fuel.

The fourth is the (not new) idea that old, stale catch-phrases are still funny if a Smurf (or a talking CGI animal, or a cat with a hat and a sword) says them.

The fifth is the movie's 80% commitment to itself. Mostly, the movie is done sincerely, and that's good. It leads to some awful "be true to yourself" crap at the climax but that was probably inevitable. The remaining 20%, where the movie sort of winks at you grossly and says "We know. We're all better than this, really," makes me want to leave.

There are moments when Gargamel points out (facetiously) that Papa Smurf lives in the village which his 99 sons and one daughter—and there's nothing weird about that—or when the word "smurf" is clearly being used as a substitute for something lewd. that the movie both recycles 20 year old Smurf humor and snarks at itself at the same time where I really wanted to leave.

You're not better than this movie: You're making this movie. You took the cheapest (narratively speaking) route, going with a fish-out-of-water story and struggling-young-man-wrestles-with-his-conscience-but-Smurfs-show-him-the-way story. Own it. And this brings me to the last major failure.

See, the cast and CGI are pretty top-notch. It's not quite an A-List cast: Neal Patrick Harris is the lead human, and Hank Azaria provides most of the movie's scarce moments of genuine humor. In fact, Hank Azaria unintentionally invokes Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, in that you can't help but think to yourself, "Wow. They spent $120 million to make this piece of smurf."

And you sort of end up thinking, "Well, they got NPH because they couldn't get Justin Timberlake, Jayma Mays is his girlfriend insetad of Katherine Heigl, they got Hank Azaria instead of, I dunno, F. Murray Abrahams, Sofia Vergara instead of Penelope Cruz," and so on. Down to the cameos: Tim Gunn instead of Stacey and Clinton, Liz Smith instead of Mary Hart, and Joan Rivers instead of someone living.

And this carries down to the voice level. Anton Yelchin plays clumsy, maybe instead of Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Winters (still alive!) is Papa Smurf instead of Bob Hoskins, Smurfette is Katy Perry instead of Lady Gaga, George Lopez is Grouchy instead of, well, anyone else at all.

Not that any of these people do a bad job. Azaria, as I've mentioned, does what he can to buoy the proceedings. Yelchin has a nice, mild nasality to his voice. Alan Cummings does an excellent Scottish Brogue. And it's cute when Katy Perry says "I kissed a Smurf and I liked it."

But overall, it's a soulless exercise in budgeting and overseas gross receipts. (The movie grossed a modest $120M domestically but three-times more world-wide.) Probably the only indispensable cast member was Frank Welker, who's the cat-voice of Azrael. Apart from Welker, Narrator Smurf Tom Kane, and John Kassir, every voice is stunt casting. Welker and Kassir were both voices in the '80s Smurf cartoon, in fact.

This movie is the epitome of modern Hollywood, really. A movie so calculated, pre-packaged and lab-tested to make money, the chance of any actual art occurring is near zero.

The Barbarienne proclaimed the movie "smurftastic" and I couldn't disagree.

But I don't think we meant the same thing.

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