Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
A family headed for a weekend in the backwoods is stranded when a wounded deer jumps in front of their car and sends them into a ditch. A posse of threatening rednecks appears and the ringleader Otis (John Speredakos) shoots the wounded deer point blank as the child in the car looks on. This is how the filmmakers establish Otis as the bad guy--and this will also create dramatic tension later between Otis and the Wendigo monster so you never quite know which one's actually terrorizing the family throughout the film. Once it's painfully clear who the bad guy is the trouble begins in earnest. When dad George mom Kim and son Miles finally arrive at the country house where they're staying they realize that someone's been shootin' up walls and windows. By now everyone in the theater knows it must be Otis. He certainly reappears soon enough--and now the big mean deer killer "knows where we live!" You bet he does Miles and he's watching your parents have sex right now. But that just makes him a pervert--not a psycho killer. Or does it? You'll spend the rest of this nightmare movie waiting to find out the answer to this and other compelling questions. Like what the hell is a Wendigo anyway?
When little Miles' head first appears in the back seat of the car you can't help but gasp. It's Dewey--oops Erik Per Sullivan--with hair and playing about three years younger than he looks like he really is. Yes Malcolm in the Middle fans your dear hamster-toting pal has finally hit the big screen. The filmmakers probably told him that he'd be the next Haley Joel Osment: "Wendigo is the next Sixth Sense. You just have to be in it!" Poor kid. It's not and he didn't. Still he does well enough with material that calls for him to do little other than look vacant and cry. Patricia Clarkson as Kim and Jake Weber as George are vacuous and their performances utterly forgettable. Of course the utter crappiness of the script doesn't help and since they have most of the lines they come off the worst.
There's a certain '80s charm to the wintry look of this movie which is probably more to director of photography Terry Stacey's (Spring Forward Trick) credit than to director Larry Fessenden's. Credit Fessenden who also wrote and edited and designed the Wendigo creature with well the Wendigo mostly. Because the sheer stupidity of this completely non-frightening creature pretty much nails exactly why this movie is as awful as it is. The Wendigo looks kind of like a deer standing on its hind legs with um hands. Yeah that's right. Hands. The creature might be the stuff of Miles' nightmares--there's certainly that possibility--but surely it should be at least a little scary. It's a joke as it's incarnated here. This is also the case with any number of scenes that are supposed to be scary but just aren't: at Otis' place the hangin' deer meet is supposed to spook ya; it doesn't. Dad and Miles chop wood with an axe? Come on. Chopping wood is only a frightening event if your daddy slices his leg open with a chain saw. When George falls off the back of a sled leaving Miles to torpedo down the hillside and later flee on foot as a smoke-thing (Wendigo spirit perhaps?) roils after him you're not frightened. You just want to cry "Run Dewey run!" The biggest joke is the ghostly Native American guy who appears at key moments (and once in a Quickie Mart) never speaks but manages to deliver voiceovers like "Wendigo is a mighty powerful spirit…part wind part tree part man part beast shape shifting." He also gives Dewey--oops Miles--the little carved statue that will play a key role in the plot's twist.