Friday, July 29, 2011

The Smurfs ** 1/2

Like everything movie based on a 1980s glorified toy commercial, The Smurfs has had an immediate, pre-release "They're ruining my childhood!" backlash. People have been gearing themselves up for The Smurfs being the absolute nadir of cinema. Yes, there are truly terrible moments in this film. But nothing worse than Transformer: Dark of the Moon. In fact, I only felt one moment got as bad, and it's, mercifully, shorter than Michael Bay's drawn out attempts at comedy, which are far more painful than abdominal surgery. And, unlike that one, this film does have moments of considerable charm. If you're going to a 1980s childhood movie this summer, I'd recommend Smurfs over Transformers to literally anyone, without a moment of hesitation.

       The story features the title creatures being pursued by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) through a magic portal and ending up in our world. Certainly an overused premise, but at least in this case it's in keeping with the fanstasy nature of the story, instead of being a "stepping out of the cartoon into real life" contrivance. In modern day New York, the Smurfs meet a young couple, played by Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays.

        The Smurfs themselves are the most successful aspect of the film. The animators and writers have captured the addmittedly one-dimensional characters rather well, and the voice actors are, generally, very good. Jonathan Winters actually adds a touch of depth to Papa Smurf, and Anoton Yelchin is thoroughly lovable as Clumsy. Much more surprising is that Katy Perry actuall does quite well as Smurfette (though her "I kissed a smurf and I liked it" joke is a bad choice and a complete misfire. One of the worst aspects of films like this one is the tendency to over rely on pop culture references that don't even relate to the material). George Lopez as Grouch is the most questionable choice, both in being a little overly recognizable, and in being a mediocre comic and non-actor. But after some time to settle in, he works well enough.  Of course the tendency to use the word "smurf" in every possible context is overmilked as a joke, but that's a pitfall that would be wfully difficult to avoid. Overall, I felt the smurfs themselves were likable characters that appealed to those who loved them as kids (me), or kids just being introduced to them (my nephew and neice).

          The humans are more mixed. Azaria ranges from hilarious to awful, sometimes even in the same scenes. The awful is more related to his jokes than his performance, but his perfomance plays as if it's largely improvised, so he recieves both credit and blame there. He look and sounds just liek the character, and his comic delivery is great as always. But he's doing far too many bathroom jokes (why do people have such a hard time grasping that, yes, kids laugh at bathroom jokes, but the vast majority of parents are trying to hasten them out of that stage, and therefore such jokes are spectacularly out of place in a children's film?). Harris and Mays are saddled with a plot that seems singularly ill-advised. What kid cares about whether Harris lands the big ad account at work? However, the more they are called upon to interact with the sSmurfs, the more likab;e they bcome. Thankful, Harris is playing the sort of nice guy role at which he excels (as supposed to on his sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where I find him utterly forced and completely unconvincing as a smarmy jerk character). Anyone who has seen Mays before knows she's as cutesy as Smurf herself, and therefore she seems utterly at home taking care of Clumsy and bonding with Smurfette.

         So, for all its faults, I enjoyed The Smurfs on its own level, It's not one of the best films of the summer, by any means, but it's not the worst movie of the summer, either. It's a cute, lightweight movie that gets some things wrong, and some right. As one who used to get up at 7:30am on Saturdays to watch the cartoon, I had fun revisiting the characters, and my neice and nephew instantly loved them. It's not a Pixar movie, but it's a lot more enjoyable than the Transformers sequels.

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