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.
The term “burlesque ” for the uninitiated refers to a specific brand of female striptease that incorporates flamboyant costumes elaborate choreography kitschy songs and various other elements to which heterosexual men are largely indifferent. But it’s wildly popular in other circles -- so much so in fact that it has earned its very own film titled oddly enough Burlesque.
Written and directed by music video veteran Steven Antin Burlesque is fashioned loosely as a camp homage to the 2000 film Coyote Ugly. Stage and screen legend Cher brought to life by an innovative blend of animatronics and CGI stars as Tess the brash tough-as-nails proprietress of Hollywood's almost unbearably fabulous Burlesque Lounge. Despite the obvious popularity of its musical revue the club is plagued by money problems which makes it the target of acquisitive real estate developer Marcus Gerber (Eric Dane) a man whose name alone carries all sorts of ominous Teutonic implications. But Tess determined diva that she is refuses to sell. She's not about to let years of gross financial mismanagement kill her dream of providing a haven where scantily clad women can dance provocatively without fear of encountering men who’d like to sleep with them.
Potential salvation arrives in the luminous top-heavy form of Iowa-bred Ali (Christina Aguilera) a vision of wide-eyed innocence and vaulting ambition in soft focus. Immediately upon entering the Lounge she is struck by the sudden realization that her lifelong dream is to become a burlesque superstar. Unfortunately Tess doesn’t initially recognize Ali’s potential and the poor girl is forced to slum it as a cocktail waitress in the bar area where she’s embraced by the club’s straightgay bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) a southern transplant whose own showbiz dream involves making it as a songwriter. (In accordance with songwriter tradition he takes pains to ensure that every inch of his chiseled frame is bronzed and waxed. Just like Bernie Taupin.) In her free time Ali devotes herself to the study of burlesque and when her opportunity arises she seizes it without hesitation.
Burlesque is principally the Cher and Christina Show and the film thrives when their respective talents are on display. (“Talents ” obviously gaining a dual meaning in regards to Aguilera.) Surrounding them are a smattering of stock characters pursuing forgettable story arcs the lone exception being the always excellent Stanley Tucci adding a pinkish hue to his incomparable wit in the role of Sean Tess’s long-suffering boa-clad second-in-command. He and co-star Alan Cumming are two sides of the same sassy coin but Cumming is little more than a bitchy bit player in Burlesque poking his head into the frame on occasion to deliver a biting one-liner. Then again that description could apply to any number of characters in the film.
It appears that Antin true to his music-video pedigree conceived of Burlesque with the song-and-dance pieces in mind first then set about building a story around them. (The opposite is generally preferred.) The musical set pieces are lavish sexy and at times truly dazzling especially when Aguilera takes the stage but they do little to advance the film’s plot. Consequently Burlesque’s running time swells to almost two hours to satisfy the demands of a story that frankly seem hardly worthy of such an effort.
Here's a story about two murderesses who backstab lie and cheat--plus sing and dance--in order to make themselves stand out in roaring 1920s Chicago a town full of legends. Honestly what more could you ask for in entertainment? Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a sensational nightclub duo with her sister blanks out and shoots her philandering husband after she catches him cheating on her--with said sister. She lives the high life in jail enjoying the perks as long as she pays for them given to her by the warden Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah). Velma also hires Chicago's slickest lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to keep her notorious murder case on the front page. Enter little Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) a wannabe singer/dancer who's entranced by Chicago's promise of fame and fortune and winds up on the row for offing her abusive lover because he lied to her about breaking her into show biz. Billy immediately recognizes enormous potential in Roxie's crime of passion and while postponing Velma's case turns Roxie into America's latest sweetheart. The press loves her and Roxie milks it for all it's worth convinced she'll be famous when it's all over. The jilted Velma however has other plans for little Miss Perfect and sets out to sabotage Roxie's case. The two women stop at nothing to top one another and claim their rightful place in the spotlight. Still maybe there is room for two on that stage after all.
Once again we see how Hollywood movie stars can sometimes do more than emote on screen. Michelle Pfeiffer wowed audiences when she sang her own songs in The Fabulous Baker Boys; Nicole Kidman knocked 'em dead in Moulin Rouge. Now we have Zellweger Gere and Zeta-Jones singin' and struttin' their stuff in Chicago. The three do an admirable job handling the musical chores though Zellweger emerges as the best of the trio. Her dancing skills may need a little work but they're thankfully kept to a minimum and she certainly possesses the right amount of charisma to pull the whole musical thing off. Gere continually surprises you once you get over the fear that he's going to fall flat on his face. He even manages to pull off a tap-dancing number. Zeta-Jones who lobbied hard for the part of Velma makes her talent as a dancer evident but it's possible that Bebe Neuwirth (TV's Frasier) who originated the part in the recent Broadway revival may have fit the bill a little better. (The casting is reminiscent of the decision to give the big-screen lead in My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn instead of the Broadway show's star Julie Andrews.) And John C. Reilly miraculously shows some talent as a singer playing Roxie's husband Amos who supports his wife even after she cheated on him. Reilly adds this character to his list of schlub husbands this year (The Good Girl; The Hours).
Like last year's Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge Chicago's sleek production values may trumpet the triumphant return of the big-screen musical. Director Rob Marshall whose only other directorial credit is turning the musical Annie into a well-made television mini-series knows how to frame the musical numbers within the context of the story. As Roxie fantasizes about just how famous she is going to get the action segues into a dazzling solo in front of mirrors. Another standout is Queen Latifah's introductory song as Mama Morton where the scene switches between her drab warden walking through the jail and her buxom lounge siren working the audience. The film really comes alive though during the "murderess row" number where a series of jailed women explain exactly what they did to get where they are. But in this fantastic spectacle lies the main problem with the film. The scene sparkles because it incorporates real dancers women who obviously know how to dance the way Chicago's original creator/choreographer Bob Fosse intended them to dance. At this point in the film you almost wish you were watching Chicago live on stage where dancers do amazing choreography without the comfort of knowing their performance will be edited. Singing is the easy part; if musicals are truly going to make a comeback on screen Hollywood will have to go back to what it did in the '30s and '40s--groom professional dancers into movie stars. Fred Astaire where are you when we need you?