Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 34: The Smurfs

"Someone's been working in dark and terrible magic in there."

There's a tendency by people of my generation to hate something before they ever even lay eyes on it. Now granted, we've been burned a lot by people mining things from our childhood for a quick buck and turning them into cheap cash grabs, but it's made a lot of us turn into cold, cynical human beings. I think that there's a thaw that occurs when we become parents though, and we somehow become more forgiving of these things because we can experience them again for the first time, vicariously through our children. Now, this is not to say that there are still a lot of lazy, cheap filmmakers out there making lazy, cheap films, but there's no reason for us to go around expecting every single one of these efforts to be lousy.

I would love to sit here and report to you that Raja Gosnell's 2011 live-action/cgi hybrid update of the popular 80s cartoon The Smurfs is just the film to convince you that you shouldn't be so cynical when approaching adaptations of this sort. It seems like a textbook example of the kind of film that would infuriate a cynical viewer, and don't get me wrong, there's a lot to dislike about it, but it takes a step in the right direction for updating properties like this one. The thing that this film nails that almost every other film of this ilk has gotten wrong is the casting of the live action characters.

When you look at a movie like Alvin and the Chipmunks and its sequels, they cast Jason Lee and David Cross to play the humans and to say they phoned it in is a polite way to put what they actually did in those movies. Ditto 2010's Yogi Bear which saw some talented comedic actors like Tom Cavanagh & Anna Faris flounder. Thankfully The Smurfs avoids this by casting the incredibly talented Neil Patrick Harris & Jayma Mays. Additionally, the film is aided in every way possible by one of the best performances of the year (and I am in no way, shape or form exaggerating when I say this) by Hank Azaria as Gargamel.

The plot is ridiculous, involving a harvest festival in the Smurf village called The Blue Moon Festival, which is interrupted by Gargamel who infiltrates his way into their village, destroying most of it. When fleeing, Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin) takes a wrong turn and is followed by Smurfette (Katy Perry, <dismissive wank>), Grouchy (George Lopez), Brainy (Fred Armisen), Gutsy (Alan Cumming) and Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters, wonderful as ever). A portal opens and sucks those six Smurfs along with Gargamel and his cat Azrael into New York City. There they must bide their time until the next blue moon, when the portal will open again and they can return home.

They meet up with Patrick Winslow (Harris) and his wife Grace (Mays) and get caught up in their lives as Patrick is trying to obtain a promotion on a deadline at work and Grace is pregnant and trying to get Patrick to understand. Their subplot is surprisingly heavy for a kids' film, but I don't think my daughters gave a crap about it, it's mostly there to give the adults something relatable, which is actually a welcome surprise in a movie like this.

Now, as for Azaria's Gargamel, it's the best thing that could have ever happened to the film. I would wager to say it's the reason the film was as successful as it was, because even children can laugh at how ridiculous everything he does and says is. Typically the bad guy in a kids film is either a total jerk with no redeeming qualities or a comedic buffoon that poses no real threat to anyone. Azaria deftly balances these two traits and creates a fully realized character who's a buffoon, but poses a credible threat to the protagonists.

His chemistry with the cat playing Azrael is great (I know how ridiculous that sounds, but when you see it, you'll know what I mean. The cat is usually a real cat, but is sometimes a poorly created cgi character, I think to let kids watching know that they didn't put a real cat in any danger. Azaria has some inspired moments, like a dinner he has at a fancy restaurant where he takes a champagne bucket from a waiter and treats it like a chamber pot. Azaria has always been an ace voice over artist on The Simpsons and even managed to steal The Birdcage from the bevy of comedic geniuses around him. Here he seems to have been given free range to do and say whatever he liked, and it pays off in gigantic dividends.

There are moments that are unbearable, like an extended Guitar Hero sequence set to the Run-DMC/Aerosmith version of "Walk this Way" with the Smurfs providing their own, groan-inducing lyrics. Also, the endless substitution of the word "smurf" was actually used sparingly on the original cartoon, but is used here virtually any time one of the little blue creatures opens their mouths. The lesson being spoon-fed to the young people in the audience through Clumsy's journey is all about believing in yourself and relying on others when you can't do it alone, is a good message, and is certainly better than having no discernible moral lesson.

I have a rule with films, any time the number of writers is more than two, you can start subtracting half a star off your review for each additional writer, and this film has six credited writers (granted two of them are repeats for story credit), but at least they were smart enough to give Hank Azaria free reign to re-write his character and to include a nice message for the kids out there.

I've been watching a lot of kids' movies over the last five years, and there's been a lot of dreck in that time. Granted The Smurfs is not the savior of mankind we've been waiting for, and thankfully we can count on Pixar to put out a smart kids' movie every year, and even Dreamworks has squeezed out some good ones recently. As a parent, I know I'm going to get dragged to these movies whether I like it or not, so at least the makers of The Smurfs had enough common sense to give parents like me something to have fun with.

And all you cold-hearted, Gen-X cynics out there like me, far more filmmakers have taken far greater liberties with your favorite childhood properties than this (G.I. Joe, Transformers, Yogi Bear, Alvin & the Chipmunks, Scooby-Doo, the list is endless). Give this film a chance. Yes, you'll have to steel your nerves at times & grin and bear some pretty annoying plot contrivances, but it could have been a lot worse.

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