The Smurfs (2011) – Directed by Raja Gosnell – Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jayma Mays, Sofía Vergara, Tim Gunn, Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry, Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming, Anton Yelchin, George Lopez, Jeff Foxworthy, Paul Reubens, Gary Basaraba, John Oliver, Kenan Thompson, B.J. Novak, Joel McCrary, Wolfgang Puck, John Kassir, Tom Kane, and Frank Welker.
THE SMURFS is a calculated, mega budget, Hollywood product. It doesn’t have enough faith in the source material to tell a Smurfs story on its own, and instead of staying home, the film drags a small band of the little blue folk to New York City (of course) to act wacky in the big, modern world. It’s all so predictable and consumable.
And I kinda love it.
I know, right? I’m still sort of stunned. I always want to like the movies I watch (why would you want to hate something you’re about to sit through?), but I certainly wasn’t expecting to like THE SMURFS. But I did. Right from the start, too.
SMURFS open with bright, beautiful images and swooping camera shots as some Smurfs are flying on the backs of birds to get ready for the Blue Moon Festival. (Score one for the Smurfs having good taste in beer.) As we come into the Smurf village, there’s plenty of singing and activity and just a really positive vibe to everything. Papa Smurf is in his mushroom doing magic to let him see the future (thus serving as the gateway to decades of drug use by millions of children worldwide), Clumsy is ruining things, and – I swear to Valhalla I think this is when I first kinda fell in love with this movie – the Narrator of the film turns out to be …
There’s a Smurf who narrates everyday events like actual life is a movie. Brilliant. Just brilliant. It’s such a nod to adults while being great for kids that it indicated right from the start that SMURFS was going to be a rather smart, self-aware production, and the film continues this appeal right through to the end.
Papa (Jonathan Winters) sees a vision that Clumsy is going to screw up and all the Smurfs are gonna be captured by Gargamel (Hank Azaria) so he orders Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) not to do anything. Clumsy, of course, doesn’t do this and ends up leading Gargamel and his cat Azrael (the legendary Frank Welker) right to the village. The Smurfs scatter as Gargamel starts destroying the village as he tries to capture the Smurfs. (Gargamel wants to capture Smurfs so he can steal their “Smurf Essence” in order to do more powerful magic.
Through this point in the movie, I was really enjoying SMURFS, but I knew the trip to New York was coming and that still had me a bit nervous. The Smurfs all scatter but Clumsy ends up going the wrong way, so Papa, Smurfette (Katy Perry), Brainy (Fred Armisen), Gutsy (Alan Cumming), and Grouchy (George Lopez) go after him and they end up getting sucked through a blue moon-fueled vortex that deposits them in New York. Gargamel and Azrael dive into the vortex after them, and when everyone gets to New York the chase is on.
Now, a couple things here. SMURFS is paced exceedingly well. This is a movie that hums along and uses it’s slow moments to great effect. You start to realize that when things slow down and people start talking there’s a reason for it, and I really respect that the slow moments here have a real impact in the film. You really do learn about Clumsy and Smurfette and Papa in these moments as they become real characters and not just their descriptors. Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) even comments on this at one point during a sourpuss moment: “Do you guys get your names and then develop the matching personalities or do you not get a name until after you develop a personality?”
The Smurfs response? “Yes.”
NPH is his usual awesome self (his image changing turn in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is the male equivalent of Drew Barrymore’s Playboy appearance), but the real human star of SMURFS is Jayma Mays’ Grace, Patrick’s pregnant wife. Mays sets some new record for adorableness here. While her husband is a bit freaked out by the sudden appearance of these little blue people in his house (he accidentally brought Clumsy home in a box and the others followed them), Grace recovers from her shock pretty quickly, as she goes from trying to hurt Clumsy out of fear and shock to being totally concerned for his well being.
It’s such a great moment. Clumsy is trying to escape from the Winslow’s dog and he ends up in the toilet, covered in toiler paper. Grace comes in and picks this mass of wet paper out of the toilet, and from this wet mass Clumsy appears. She freaks and tosses him against the window. She’s screaming, he’s screaming, they’re both freaked and shocked … and then Grace realizes that Clumsy is afraid and she instantly melts, going from spooked to concerned. She comes out of the bathroom, cradling him in her hands, and sees that Patrick has been fighting with the others. He tells her not to be fooled, but the look on her face tells him that he’s not winning that fight.
The next morning Patrick is still a little unsure of things, but Grace is totally loving this strange turn of events. “How crazy is this?” she enthuses. “There are little blue people singing in our kitchen!”
“So you’re going with the idea that this is actually happening?” Patrick asks.
I can’t say enough about how good Mays is in this film. I’ve always been sort of lukewarm on her as an actress, but she’s absolutely fantastic in SMURFS. In that one moment where she becomes concerned for Clumsy, as she becomes ashamed at herself for causing this little blue guy to be so afraid of her … I mean, without even knowing anything of their back story you can see why Patrick fell in love with this woman. She’s a good person. She’s nice. And it’s not a front. Grace is just this incredibly positive, happy, nice, intelligent, good person.
The rest of the move sees the Smurfs trying to get back home as they try to avoid Gargamel and Patrick tries to build a successful marketing campaign for his boss (Sofía Vergara). The film gives service to the plot but the real enjoyment is just watching the interaction between the Smurfs and the Winslows. There’s some really nice scenes between Patrick and Papa Smurf about the responsibilities of being a father, and some equally great scenes between Grace and Smurfette and Grace and Clumsy. It’s these scenes that continually win me over because Papa’s advice to Patrick, Grace’s advice to Clumsy that he doesn’t have to just be clumsy, and Grace’s female bonding with Smurfette (who’s still the only female Smurf) are real, emotional moments.
I enjoyed SMURFS so much that the presence of Hank Azaria didn’t make me want to punch the television or vomit or go clean the bathroom. He’s completely over the top (because he’s seemingly always completely over the top) but it works here, both because this is a kids’ movie and because of Azrael.
Yeah, the cat. Azrael is part real cat, part CGI, and he’s really funny. He’s also the perfect sidekick-slash-foil for Azaria and Gargamel. When Azaria goes too far, the cat’s there to tell us that he knows Gargamel has gone too far and that self of self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers helps make these eye-rolling moments work. When Gargamel pees in what he thinks is a chamber pot in the middle of a fancy restaurant, it’s not that funny. Azrael’s reactions, however, are funny, which makes Azaria’s exaggerated performance come off as the straight man.
THE SMURFS isn’t a wholly perfect movie, but it is heartwarming, amusing, fast-paced, and full of real characters. The interaction between the Smurfs and the Winslows, combined with the self-awareness of what’s going on, combine to make this a really enjoyable kids’ movie. SMURFS isn’t as good as The Muppets, but it has the same kind of vibe, and even though it’s clearly written for a younger audience, it dawned on me about halfway through the film that not only was THE SMURFS a movie I was kind of falling in love with, it’s a movie I actually want in my collection, and will spawn a sequel that I actually want to see. THE SMURFS is one of the real genuine cinematic surprises of the year.