The Smurfs - movie review
Who's saying what
That's the thought that kept running through my mind while watching the headache-inducing The Smurfs, my mind continually drifting to How To Train Your Dragon, Wall-E, Howl's Moving Castle, hell, even the first Shrek: children's films don't have to be intelligence-insulting garbage.
And yet here we are, with Hollywood reanimating the bloated corpse of the 1980s cartoon series (with but a cursory nod to the Peyo comics) for a bewildering CGI/live-action hybrid that will leave you feeling sad, insulted and hollow.
While rehearsing for the Blue Moon Festival, Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) has a vision: his wayward "son" Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) will bring about a catastrophe that could spell the end of the Smurfs.
When Clumsy accidentally leads the evil Gargamel (a thoroughly debased Hank Azaria) to the village, the vision looks set to come true. In yet more clumsiness - ho ho! - on his part, a gaggle of Smurfs including Papa, Clumsy, Smurfette (Katy Perry), Grouchy (George Lopez), Gutsy (Alan Cumming) and Brainy (Fred Armisen) are sucked through a portal.
Dusting themselves off, they discover they are in New York City. And wouldn't you know it, Gargamel and his cat Azrael have followed them through the portal.
Somehow the irritating posse finds its way to a media launch for Anjelou makeup, one of those intensely anonymous brands that only exists in unimaginative cinema; Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris), the head of marketing, is instructed by his fiery boss Odile (Sofia Vergara) that he has two days to come up with a ripper new advertising campaign (which shouldn't be hard since its existing "vision" seems to have been created by a Year 11 student with an iStock-Photo account).
They leap on his cab - the first of two quease-making visual gags that sees them "blend in" against blue-themed advertising, this time for Blue Man Group, later for Blu-Ray - and follow him home, where his pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays) is waiting for him.
Patrick gets to work and, ut-oh, he's going to have to work so hard to get this promotion that he'll miss the ultrasound. Fortunately the Smurfs turn up to teach him a valuable lesson about love and family, because nothing says "family values" like an all-male commune ruled by an old man in a red hat.
(The only female in the village is Smurfette, only she isn't even a real Smurf, and instead a construct magicked up by Gargamel to ensnare the residents of Smurfville, or Smurftown, or whatever it's called, which is 99% male because...?? Her great epiphany comes in the doll aisle at FAO Schwartz when she realises you can buy lots of clothes.)
There's not much else to say about the "story": the Smurfs want to go home, Gargamel wants to find the Smurfs, Patrick wants to unleash his true self with a marketing design that looks like the animated landing page for a "web-log" in 1998; I'm sure you can tell how it all turns out.
The remarkable thing about The Smurfs is the level of contempt it has for its audience.
Let's start with Azrael. Evidently the SFX team couldn't decide whether he is a real cat, a grotesque caricature of one, or a truly nightmarish uncanny-valley feline that will send a generation into therapy, because the animation - and the regular transitions from animated to real cat - is so sloppy it beggars belief.
The 3-D sequences (yes, you can safely take your glasses off during scenes of dialogue) are blurry and eye-straining. Hours later my head is still throbbing (though that may be from sheer, jaw-clenching rage).
Poor Hank Azaria mugs around in an awful set of prosthetics as Gargamel, over-acting with such aggression he nearly blows a blood vessel. In keeping with the film's unpleasant throwback quality, he is subjected to a series of alternately violent and scatological pratfalls. There is one close-up, of his fingers grasping a lock of vomit-covered hair, so lingering I began to wonder if they'd brought in Tom Six as second unit director.
The rest of the cast just seems to be wincing with every line they utter. Tim Gunn shows up as one many bewildering celebrity cameos, uttering his "Make it work" catchphrase with about as much enthusiasm as Yul Brynner's Gunslinger.
The Smurfs themselves range from blandly pleasant (Papa Smurf, Smurfette) to irritating (Grouchy) to likely-to-induce-a-murderous-rage (Clumsy).
And boy, they look creepy; rather than keeping them cartoonish, the animation has given them a waxy, translucent quality. Also, their habit of substituting "smurf" for a variety of words, much like Gee Officer Krupke's "Krup you!", directs your mind instead to the missing word. I mean, "He can smurf me"? "You smurfed the wrong girl"?
Then there's the three-minute ad for Guitar Hero. Yes, the film indulges in a level of product placement not seen since the glory days of Mac & Me.
"Directed" by Raja Gosnell, the luminary who brought us Home Alone 3, Big Momma's House and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, this bubblegum-coloured exercise in cinematic water torture is a nasty confection. And there's something truly odious about children's films that are this sick-making; adults can leave it behind at the cinema, impressionable young minds may not be so lucky.
The Smurfs will show children a world where Latino people are duplicitous, the fashion and beauty world is run by theatrical gay people, black people only exist in prison, Asian people run mystical junk shops, and pregnant women sit around idly painting jewellery boxes and waiting for the stork to arrive/their husband's promotion, whichever comes first.
If that's a world you're prepared to pay to immerse yourself and your children in, you deserve every 103-minutes of eye-smurfing you get.
- One star
The Smurfs is in cinemas nationally September 15th.
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