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.
For the uninitiated Firefly's 26th-century final frontier resembled the wild wild West with gunslingers shooting up mining towns on far-flung worlds. The show playfully chronicled the criminal endeavors of Serenity's motley crew of smugglers captained by the glib but principled Mal (Nathan Fillion). The ship also serves as home to passengers Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau). Serenity swiftly but awkwardly recounts how Simon risked his promising career as a doctor to rescue River from scientists working for the nefarious Alliance the victors in a cruel war against freedom fighters known as Browncoats (yes our good captain was a Browncoat). The Alliance turned River a young psychic into a killing machine. Now the siblings are on the run. Serenity opens with the Alliance dispatching its harshest operative known only as--yes--the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to capture River. So Mal must put on hold his illicit dealings to protect the increasingly violent River. And that means putting Serenity--and the crew Mal regards as family--in harms way. So does it help if you have partaken of Firefly's 14 episodes? It certainly does. Whedon makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with Firefly or its crew and passengers. But if you can grasp the gist of Firefly's intricate political machinations then the flight's somewhat enjoyable.
Serenity's crew and passengers are all present and accounted for led as always by Fillion's captain of the ship. Imagine Jason Bateman playing Han Solo--that's Mal and he's one of the reasons why Firefly was such a exuberant romp across the universe. Fillion's deliciously sarcastic but he never allows Mal's sharp tongue to overshadow his wily ways and noble intentions. As Serenity adopts a more serious tone than Firefly Fillion heightens the tension by employing Mal's brashness as an unstoppable force of vengeance. Of course Mal's a pussycat compared to River. Sure she's a one-woman army but Glau doesn't allow River to devolve into a lethal weapon. With a face wracked with pain and eyes filled with sorrow Glau heartbreakingly presents a teen at odds with herself and fearful of what she may do to those willing to risk their lives for her. That includes her brother Simon who's played with little more backbone by Maher than he was in Firefly. Otherwise Serenity's remaining crew and passengers--including the brawny Adam Baldwin the steadfast Gina Torres and the righteous Ron Glass--serve the same functions as they did in Firefly. Only Alan Tudyk stands out from the crowd as Serenity's pilot and the source of much-needed comic relief. But it is Four Brothers' Ejiofor who steals Serenity. He's clever articulate and devout with a quiet and calm demeanor that hides his cruelty. How merciless is this self-described "monster" of a man? He kills children in his crusade to create a world without sin or so Ejiofor chillingly reveals. Ejiofor had better be careful that he's not typecasting himself as a brute but there's no denying he's fulfilling the promise he showed in Dirty Pretty Things.
Whedon's not one to abandon his children. He transformed the bloodless Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a cult TV series. Now he's salvaged his beloved Firefly which Fox unceremoniously canceled in 1992 after airing 11 episodes--mostly in the wrong order. But Firefly thrived on DVD so Universal's sank $40 million into a film that skillfully ties up most of the show's loose ends. The reason behind the Alliance's desperate attempt to recapture its science project gone awry is finally revealed and the answer isn't pretty. The dreaded Reavers--self-mutilating cannibals who prefer their meals alive and kicking--play a pivotal role in the proceedings. And at least one of Serenity's budding romances is consummated. The bad news though is that Serenity will make little sense to anyone who isn't a Browncoat. Serenity unfolds like Firefly's series finale and by the time you figure out what's what the day's on the verge of being saved. Worse Whedon is so intent on wrapping up everything that he neglects to retain Firefly's roguish charm. The mischievousness is gone replaced with a dark and brooding mood rarely hinted at in the TV show. It also doesn't help that Serenity makes little effort to reintroduce the crew and passengers. Whedon does a poor job of making anyone but Browncoats care about the people aboard Serenity. And that's a huge problem when death strikes Serenity. In the case of one influential Firefly character whose presence is rarely felt in Serenity a non-Browncoat just won't appreciate the enormity of this sad loss. Browncoats though will be stunned that Whedon can be so bloodthirsty. Still they will feel satisfied Whedon made these sacrifices so that Serenity would prove doggedly true to the Firefly mythology.