Smurfs: The Lost Village and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation
Directed by Kelly Asbury
Considering how the LAST two Smurfs movies turned out, this really doesn’t have to do all that much to be a massive improvement, does it? To be fair, it DOES look like the new direction their going in is the right move for this franchise as it looks much more like the original series, and we’re also not going to the real world this time around which shows some signs that Sony realized where they screwed up and are trying to make it better. Plus, they also got Jack McBrayer which is you all need to get my ass into a theater! Does this manage to win back the fans it lost with the last two cynical features, or did they manage to screw it up again even with two perfect examples of how NOT to make a Smurfs movie to go by? Let’s find out!
The movie starts in Smurf village where all the little Smurfs are Smurfing about doing their Smurfy thing. All except for Smurfette (Demi Lovato) who may have golden locks to die for but isn’t sure what else a Smurfette is supposed to do. Oh sure, it’s easy for Police Smurf and Saxophone Smurf who’s occupations are spelled out for them like a Cutie Mark in My Little Pony, but what about her!? Is being the one and only female Smurf the ONLY thing she’s good at!? Well… maybe not as she soon discovers another Smurf while Smurf-boarding in the forest, but before she can ask any questions or even get a good look at them, they run off into the FORBIDDEN FOREST which I can only assume is the same one from Harry Potter. Smurfette wants to find this new Smurf as well as the village they came from (perhaps a LOST village of Smurfs!?) but Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) forbids her to go into the FORBIDDEN FOREST because… well, it’s FORBIDDEN! Despite his warnings not to go out there, she sneaks off into the middle of the night to go searching the FORBIDDEN FOREST and ends up having a few tag-alongs who were following her in the form of Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello), Clumsy Smurf (Jack McBrayer) and Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi); all of whom are sure to bring their unique brand of Smurf Shenanigans to this adventure! Oh, and of course the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) gets wind of this lost village, so they have to contend with him stomping through the forest as well; hoping to find these new Smurfs and using them to become the world’s most powerful wizard by smooshing them in some sort of magic juicer! Can the Smurfs find The Lost Village and warn them of Gargamel before it’s too late? Will Smurfette finally find out what her true purpose is on this epic quest? Just who are these new Smurfs that they’re looking for, and are they even blue!? What if… WHAT IF THEY’RE SNORKS!?
Well it’s certainly no MASTERPIECE, but compared to what we got before? Yeah, no contest. This is leaps and bounds better than the live action movies which managed to fuck everything up DESPITE having Neil Patrick Harris onboard. To a certain extent, I’m not even sure how harshly I can criticize this movie for some of the problems I have with it as… well, IT’S A FREAKING KIDS MOVIE. Now I’m normally not one to let a movie slide because of this (just look at my recent review of Boss Baby) as the qualifier is often used incorrectly to excuse incompetence. In this though, it works on a level that I can see appealing to kids to a greater degree than to a grown ass man such as myself (though that’s still somewhat debatable) and also tries to impart its message on a level that would be easier for a younger audience to grasp. Honestly, there’s probably a limit to which I can enjoy an authentic Smurfs film as I was never a fan of the damn things in the first place, but the effort to do better than the previous films and make something with at least a MODICUM of sincerity and appreciation for the characters is certainly there even if I wasn’t entirely won over by it.
Now we’ll be touching on some stuff that might be considered spoilers as the denizens of the Lost Village weren’t revealed in the initial trailer but are shown in the subsequent one as well as most of the marketing materials. If you want to stay COMPLETELY spoiler free about the movie, you might want to stop reading it here and go see the movie.
We good? Alright, so if you were to describe the goals of this movie or describe the narrative the studios want to have surrounding it, the basic idea is a back to basics approach to the look and feel of everything with a story that is forward thinking. Noq the last two movies were a marketing department’s wet dream gone sentient; garnering a reputation for how shamelessly it was an exercise in saturated marketing with a script that had to twist itself into knots to somehow accommodate it. Why else would they scrap everything about the original property so that they can set the movie in a high profile city with that much product placement and have the main human character be an ADVERTISMENT EXECUTIVE? All of that is out the window as this is a straight up reboot of the franchise. The movie is now fully animated and far more resembles the original art designs, the story takes place ENTIRELY in the magical world of… wherever the hell they are, and the movie is about The Smurfs; not The Smurf’s human friend who needs to learn how to like babies or whatever. If the goal was to get back into the good graces of Smurfs fan, they honestly couldn’t have had a better starting point.
While I can’t say for certain how ACCURATE this version of The Smurfs is to whatever fans enjoy about the franchise, I gotta hand it to them that the technical chops here are top notch and do a fantastic job of recreating the tone and feel of a cartoon from that era. It’s similar to the way that The Peanuts Movie managed to capture the tone of the original Shultz comic strips and animation specials while still bringing something new to the table, and my only real complaint (purely in terms of technical execution) is that… well The Smurfs and cartoons from that specific era aren’t as good as The Peanuts were or even as good as some of the stuff we have today like Star Vs The Forces of Evil, Adventure Time, or even the recently ended Wander Over Yonder which ALSO starred Jack McBrayer. To a certain extent, I can forgive this as straying too far from the source material was one of the complaints we all had of those live action films, and while there are points where it TRIES to modernize itself and have some relevance in today’s world, the order of the day is to keep it light and keep it nostalgic which for this movie I think is good enough. Then again, there is ONE area where they didn’t quite nail the original aesthetic of the show, and that’s with Gargamel. Oh, the dude LOOKS perfect and his dynamic with Azrael is spot on… but Rain Wilson was just not a good choice to voice the part. For such an exaggerated character as a crabby old wizard who chases after little blue people, his performance is far too understated and drains a lot of energy from the scenes he’s in. Honestly, they probably would have been better off getting Hank Azaria back for this one as his performance as Gargamel in the live action films was one of the few bright spots of those movies.
So the production side of things seems to have captured the essence of how an updated version of these characters should look and feel, but what about the lines they have to say? How is the script in this back to basics approach to The Smurfs? Well… as far as the jokes and comedic set pieces, it’s a pretty mixed bag overall that managed to eventually win me over the end, but never really rises above “okay”. Granted, Jack McBrayer is working his heart out for Clumsy Smurf and there are some really cool moments in here like when the four are separated in an underground cavern, but for the most part it’s really obvious and on the nose with its humor; something I’m not AS inclined to overlook as some other parts due to this being a Kids MovieTM. Now as far as the story itself, it’s similarly flawed as the humor (i.e. it’s hit or miss) but I kind of have to give them credit for trying to dig themselves out of the Smurfette sized hole the franchise has dug that’s become the archetypical example of a certain type of female representation in media that many have been fighting to change for decades. To recap, the Smurfette Principal (coined by Katha Politt) is when a show frames male as the default and female as the deviation; usually manifesting as one girl in a cast of dudes. Now the important part isn’t necessarily the one-to-many representations of females and males in a show (the important part is that being male is seen as default and essential while female is a variation and often peripheral), but considering Smurfette’s presence as the one girl in a village of one hundred males and the fact that her origin literally sets her out not only as an outsider as she was made by Gargamel but that she was created with the expressed purpose of disrupting the peaceful all male lifestyles of the Smurfs? Yeah… you can see why they ended up naming it after her.
So how does the movie try to work with the history that this character has? Well they try to lean into all of the baggage by having the story be about Smurfette and her identity AS the outsider which I thought was handled fairly well, but they also try to tap dance around certain aspects of the character which can be a bit awkward. They mention that she was created to sow discord into the world of Smurfs, but then kind of skim over the details of HOW she was supposed to do that. Now fair enough; casting her as the EVIL TEMPTRESS in a kids movie nowadays was probably not the right direction to go in even if the point WAS to try and deal with the baggage this character has, but did they really need to go so far as to not even knowing what “ette” means? Seriously, every last one of these Smurfs has a firm grasp of the English language, yet they don’t know about a simple suffix that is used to denote femininity? It feels like instead of DEALING with the gender issue, they try to leave it entirely to subtext with the more literal arc of the story simply being about her feeling like an outsider. Oh, it’s because she wasn’t created by Papa Smurf so she doesn’t have a predefined role in life like Brainy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, and the rest. CAN’T IMAGINE ANOTHER REASON SHE’D FEEL OUT OF PLACE HERE!
That is… until the movie decides that gender IS the important part of this story which I guess brings us to the spoiler that was already spoiled in the later trailers. The Lost Village that they’re looking for turns out to be a Matriarchy of Smurf Warrior Princesses which, like a lot of things in this movie, I have mixed feelings on. On the one hand, that’s pretty awesome! The designs of this Smurf Village and how they differ from Papa Smurf’s village are interesting enough, and for the most part I like the characters that are introduced here. On the other hand, they come in WAY too late into the movie (we don’t get to the village until the end of the second act) and so it never really develops beyond WE NOW HAVE LADY SMURFS and so it still feels like they’re the deviation to be shown off rather than an integral part of the world itself; proving that the Smurfette Principal doesn’t literally have to mean just one female character. Now I’m not the person to say one way or the other how positive the representation is in this movie, but I’m kinda leaning towards “good enough” as this is aimed at a particularly young audience. It’s certainly an improvement over what they did in the cartoon with Smurfette which admittedly is a PRETTY low bar to cross, but they do show the Lost Village Smurfs to be interesting in their own right instead of just THE GIRLS… even if most of them do have gender signifies like flowers in their hats. That, and Smurfette’s arc in this is really solid even if it tries to ignore the less tasteful aspects of her origins. She’s really the only character in this with any depth or stakes, and her dynamic with Gargamel is the most interesting of this with her scenes with him being the highlights of the entire movie. Even if it’s not QUITE there yet with gender representation in this movie, it does lay the groundwork for a better sequel now that all these characters have been introduced into the Smurf’s canon.
Is it a good animated film? Eh… sort of. It’s certainly a decent enough Kids FilmsTM as it actually feels AIMED at kids instead of talking down to them, and the look of everything is about as spot on as you could expect from a movie based on this franchise. Maybe there’s only so much you can do with a Smurf’s film and this is the best we can hope to expect, but there are places in here where they could have improved and I hope that they get a sequel to do just that. Where those live action movies didn’t even feel like they were trying, this has some actual talent behind it as well as a great deal of effort. Imagine that! You actually TRY to make a good movie, and it ends up being halfway decent because of it!!