'Smurfs' Leads to the Blues
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Kids say the darnedest things, as we all know, and a lot of the darnedest things they say come in the form of questions. "What color is God?" and "Why is the sky blue?" are among the doozies that many, if not all, parents have to contend with down the fraught road of child-rearing. Which ought to make one grateful for the questions children don't ask. For instance, children who have been entertained in some form or another by the winsome blue characters the Smurfs don't generally ask, "How do the Smurfs procreate conventionally with only one female in their ranks?" This is generally because by the time it might occur to them to ask, they've lost all interest in the Smurfs.
Or that's the way it's supposed to work, I think. But in case it doesn't, the Smurf mythology -- concocted by the Belgian artist who created the comic books, a fellow who called himself Peyo, which I don't need to tell you is a mere two letters shy of "peyote" -- actually covers that particular base, as I learned while watching "The Smurfs," the thoroughly schizoid 3-D semi-animated film about a handful of Smurfs' adventures in New York. This bizarre concoction, directed by Raja Gosnell of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" fame and written by ... well, written by a bunch of fellows who really did a lot of boning up on Smurf mythology, might have been a bit more palatable had it not invested so heavily and yet so lazily in being all things to all audiences, or most audiences, or something.
We're all familiar by now with cartoon fare that successfully packs winsome kid stuff with snarky, but not too biting, pop culture knowingness, and I for one have had a bellyful of it, but I still think it's preferable to the whiplash-inducing zigzagging going on here. One minute the film is a complete send-up of the little blue folks, with live-action lead Neil Patrick Harris, the unwitting adopter of a Smurf bunch, serving as an audience surrogate in being consistently agape at just how goofy the whole Smurfiverse is. The Smurfs themselves, voiced, as is de rigueur these days, by a very distinguished/glittery group (George Lopez, Katy Perry, Fred Armisen and genuine comedy legend Jonathan Winters among them) even join in on the fun, making almost witty comments apropos their inane naming system: "You know who I don't miss? Passive Aggressive Smurf!"
The next minute sees a kindly Smurf dispensing fatherly wisdom to Harris' character, and we're expected to swallow that. The next minute offers up genuinely foul bathroom humor, mostly directed at the evil wizard Gargamel, whose appearance always made me imagine him as kind of Nixonian (not that I spent a whole lot of imagination on the matter, I hasten to add) but who is voiced here by Hank Azaria (who must have lost a bet or something -- no, I mean it) in a faux-Eastern European accent. The high point, for me, is a talking cat of the sort that should have been in Miranda July's "The Future" and the low point ... well, there are quite a few of them, not least of which is the filmmakers' ill-advised decision to displace gossip columnist Liz Smith from her sarcophagus and include her as a "celebrity" cameo.
And in case you're wondering, yes, I do rather feel like an idiot, complaining about a Smurfs movie on grounds of inconsistency of tone. But what the smurf else am I supposed to do, I ask you. The picture does do better than competently on the technical side: The depictions of the Smurf village and the strangely lifelike cuddly creatures will have the stoned persons in the audience "peaking" about 10 minutes in, and are likely to delight actual children as well. But the adults who take them to see the movie won't feel too good about themselves, or their existences, or the state of life on the planet, as the lights go up. After which maybe they'll start asking some tough questions of themselves.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.