The Smurfs are a wildly successful property that few fess up to enjoying, yet their chipper little blueberry-hued mugs are forever emblazoned in the collective memory of Reagan-era youth like a secret shame. Even then most kids would’ve sussed out their utter crapitude by the age of 9 or 10, yet hazy visions of their unwatchable Saturday morning cartoon antics seem to trigger fuzzy nostalgia pangs in all but the most flinty-hearted. Now that those folks are parents, the time’s right to exploit those trace good vibes with a crass 3-D animated-and-live-action cash in.
The brain children of Belgian cartoonist Peyo, the Smurfs are minute, azure-skinned troll creatures who dwell on the edges of an enchanted medieval forest, enjoying a collectivist agrarian lifestyle filled with sing-alongs and a rigid social structure where each Smurf is known only by his job title (farmer) or most obvious personal tic (vanity). Despite being only “three apples high” their only natural predator is a bitterly twisted old wizard named Gargamel (a hammy Hank Azaria), who’s obsessed with draining the teeny creeps of their “magic essence,” which is gross as it sounds. The wicked baddie chases a handful of the critters from the idyllic Smurf village through a portal into bustling modern New York. There, the fairy-book refugees are taken in by a kindly young couple, Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays, whose main task is to not look embarrassed.
Deprived of anything resembling entertainment, the mind wanders:
Is that really the brilliant Jonathon Winters as the voice of Papa Smurf? Can no-talent Katy Perry make Smurfette slutty? Why was heroically burly Hefty Smurf shoved aside for an unctuous newcomer with a Mike Meyers Scottish brogue (for shame, Alan Cumming)? Why are Manhattan gadflies such as Tim Gunn, Michael Musto and chef Tom Colicchio hanging around doing cameos?
Hank Azaria works his tail off, throwing himself at glass surfaces, wallowing in wet toilet paper and cat spit — enduring any indignity for cheap chuckles. I might enjoy a DVD extra of the humans reacting to nothing, giving hugs and high-fives to thin air.
The kiddies will giggle, but the grownups will be hard pressed to find amusement, aside from meta winks, such as “Narrator” Smurf, who has a booming, movie trailer voiceover delivery. The “Walk This Way” karaoke rap interlude is less charming, as is the extended product placement scene where Grouchy (George Lopez) romances a stuffed M&M character.
Helmer Raja Gosnell has shown a mighty knack for soul-crushing drivel, including the Scooby-Doo movies and Big Momma’s House, and he delivers the spastic, hollow and color-soaked experience you expected. Is this any worse than shameless updates, such as the dreaded Marmaduke or Yogi Bear? Not really, but those characters probably had more dignity to lose. Long ago, Papa and his happy brood sold out to the marketers and bean counters who squeeze whimsy into bottled profit. The Smurfs are blue because they are dead inside.