‘Smurfs’ is more bearable than its predecessors

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 - 5:40pm

NOSELL

Columbia Pictures

 

“Smurfs: The Lost Village” is marginally more sufferable than the live-action / CGI films that came out in the early 2010s, which is to say, this movie will not make parents leave their children unattended in a movie theater while they sprint outside for fresh air after every scene. It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone above the age of five, and the dearth of original ideas is exhausting, but for those preparing themselves for the worst, rest easy. “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is not terrible. It’s only bad.

The thing is, there’s a moving idea at the core of “The Lost Village”: Smurfette (Demi Lovato, “Camp Rock”), a Smurf created by evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson, “The Office”), has an identity crisis. She sees the naturally-created boys around her comfortable in their own skin and wants something similar, but she worries that her origin means she’ll only ever be meant for evil. That’s a potentially powerful character arc, and when writers Stacey Harman (“The Goldbergs”) and Pamela Ribon (“Moana”) tap into it, it results in some of the most poignant scenes “The Lost Village” has to offer.

The voice cast also has talent to spare. Wilson puts his comedic chops to good use, and the four jokes that work do so because of him. Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”) is put to little use as Papa Smurf, but when he is given his due near the film’s end, he absolutely nails it, carrying the most emotional scenes of the film. The most shocking part of the cast may be the minor characters, which includes vocal performances by “New Girl” stand-out Jake Johnson as Grumpy Smurf and Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) as Vanity Smurf. The two feel underused as mere stunt casting, especially considering they’re the funniest members of the ensemble.

The rest of the movie plays like “The Smurfs Go to Pandora.” The fantastical setting is cool at first but upon inspection reveals itself to be an (even more) animated knock-off of the setting of “Avatar.” The story doesn’t fare much better. After the early Smurfette-centric scenes, the core group of Smurfs ventures into the forest to find something that Smurfette saw earlier. The result is a plotline certain to be the subject of much ire on meninist message boards.

The ensuing message of female empowerment is welcome, but it isn’t communicated in any interesting way. It winds up being a “battle of the sexes” like every movie of this type (see: “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”) but blessedly abbreviated here. The accompanying score is occasionally pretty, but director Kelly Asbury (“Gnomeo & Juliet”) often goes to the well of generic, outdated pop songs like “Blue (Da Ba Dee).” Get it? Because the Smurfs are blue.

Besides Smurfette and Papa Smurf, the characters hold no weight either. The Smurfs are fundamentally one-note. Their personalities are able to be defined by one word, and because of that, it’s hard to care about them or laugh at any of the jokes derived from their traits. Clumsy Smurf (a perpetually screaming Jack McBrayer, “30 Rock”) is clumsy. Ha. Nosey Smurf (Asbury) is a voyeur. Ha. Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi, “Community”) is a nerd, but in a bizarre series of jokes, seems to have murderous impulses, which in a modern cinematic climate, seems an idea destined to be the inspiration for a dark and gritty “Smurfs” reboot, presumably helmed by Zack Snyder. It’s just hard to care about any of them when they have to stay within boundaries defined by a single adjective.

Aside from its work on Smurfette, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” doesn’t do anything original or interesting. It lacks a strong story or sense of humor – at one point, Gargamel French kisses his vulture, Monty, because kids love bestiality. Its old characters are as flat as ever, and the new ones it introduces have their own shticks that are driven into the ground within thirty seconds. It’s all vastly preferable to the hybrid animation dreck from a few years ago, but that doesn’t make it recommendable to any but the youngest of children.