The Smurfs Review
Yet another smurfed-up 3D conversion
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 50 years, the Smurfs or to give them their correct name, Les Schtroumpfs, are the creation of Belgian cartoonist Peyo. The little blue characters began their good natured adventures in a series of comic strips back in 1958 but are probably best known from a wildly popular TV series that ran through the entire 1980s. They have also appeared on the big screen, firstly in the 1965 Belgium animated feature Les Aventures des Schtroumpfs and then in the 1976 movie La Flute a Six Schtroumpfs. The latter film was re-dubbed and released in English as The Smurfs and the Magic Flute in 1983 to tie-in with the success of the TV series.
With the development of computer generated animation, it was only a matter of time before the Smurfs returned to the big screen and in 2008 Sony Pictures began developing a Smurfs feature in conjunction with their own animation facility, Sony Pictures Imageworks. Rather than just producing a computer animated feature, the concept of a live action/CG was developed, along with the idea of creating a trilogy of films. Given the intention of merging live action with computer generated Smurfs, Raja Gosnell was the obvious choice as director, having already made similar features such as Scooby Doo and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
The plot of the film is the classic fish out of water story with a group of Smurfs accidentally ending up in New York City whilst trying to escape Gargamel, who along with his cat Azrael, follows them there. The group of Smurfs consists of Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Brainy Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf and a new character created for the film called Gutsty Smurf. The film deliberately keeps the number of Smurfs involved in the main story to a minimum and they also ensure that they are easy to differentiate because, with the exception of Smurfette, they do all rather look the same. Whilst in New York the Smurfs meet Patrick Winslow and his wife Grace and the pair of them help the Smurfs to evade Gargamel and return to their village. After numerous adventures everything reaches a satisfying conclusion and the filmmakers even manage to set things up for the inevitable sequel.
The casting of The Smurfs involved two distinct phases, the cast for the initial live action shoot, followed by the actors who would provide the voices of the Smurfs themselves. As far as the live action cast was concerned the the filmmakers turned to actors better known for their TV work, giving the part of Patrick to Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D. and How I Met Your Mother) and the part of Grace to Jayma Mays (Heroes and Glee). However the main live action role is that of the evil wizard Gargamel and here the filmmakers cast the always reliable Hank Azaria. Thanks to extensive prosthetics, Azaria is almost unrecognisable and he throws himself into the role, completely inhabiting the part of Gargamel and stealing the movie in the process.
For the voice cast the filmmakers turned to Jonathan Winters to voice Papa Smurf, with Winters already having past form in this area, having provided the voice of Grandpa Smurf in the 1980s TV series. The voice of Clumsy Smurf was provided by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek and Terminator Salvation), the voice of Brainy Smurf was provided by Fred Armisen and the voice of Grouchy Smurf was provided by George Lopez, fresh off his voice duties on Rio. For the new character of Gutsy Smurf, the filmmakers chose Alan Cumming who was quite appropriate considering Gutsy is Scottish with a kilt and sideburns. Finally, Katy Perry provided the voice of Smurfette and rather unbelievably the filmmakers claim they chose her based on her voice without knowing who she was. Perhaps this is true but Perry’s popularity with teenage girls certainly wouldn’t have hurt the film’s box office potential.
In these days of big budget family movies, it is incredible just how much thought, time, cost and effort goes into creating a film like The Smurfs. The animation of the Smurfs themselves is very impressive and the level of detail achieved would have amazed Peyo if he were still alive. In order to help the animators during post-production, cinematographer Phil Meheux and his team would light up a scene using 7 inch tall Smurf models to stand in during set-up and rehearsals. This would also help the actors with their eye-lines and after rehearsals, they would take out the model to actually shoot the scene. Also during principal photography, the visual effects team used a new camera system to precisely record the on-set lighting, so it could be applied later in the computer. When time came to film a scene that would include actors and Smurfs, each Smurf was represented by a different colored dot and the actors had to remember which dot was which Smurf. The Smurfs characters were created during post-production by 268 Sony Pictures Imageworks employees who spent around 358,000 hours animating them.
From a critical perspective there really is little you can say about a Smurf movie aside from the fact that it is slickly made and generally harmless entertainment. The filmmakers have certainly remained respectful to Peyo and his creations, incorporating much of the Smurf mythology into the film whilst still making it accessible to a modern audience. The plot and characters will certainly appeal to younger children but older children might find the good natured and perpetually upbeat Smurfs somewhat old fashioned in this post Harry Potter world. Unlike the best kid’s films which are able to appeal to adults and children alike, The Smurfs lacks enough knowing winks to the big people in the audience to truly engage them. Having said that, the Smurfs aren't the only blue things in the movie, as the filmmakers constantly use of the word ‘smurf’ in place of expletives, which worldly-wise children might pick up on. However there is a nice post-modern touch when, in a book shop, the Smurfs look through a book of Smurf cartoons by Peyo in order to find a certain spell. Ultimately it would take a hard heart not to like The Smurfs and it is an enjoyable enough way to kill 103 minutes, especially if you’re looking for ways to entertain your kids.
Just like every other studio in these post Avatar times, Sony Pictures decided to release The Smurfs as a 3D feature. Sadly like so many other studios, Sony also decided to not shoot with 3D cameras and instead the 3D was added in post-production. At the risk of starting to sound like a cracked record (if anyone remembers those), as always when it comes to the live action scenes the results are totally unconvincing. The opening scene is entirely computer generated and as such the 3D looks quite good but as soon as Gargamel turns up, the live action Hank Azaria looks flat and dimensionless, like a character in a pop-up book. There are also tell-tale signs of conversion artefacts when the 3D is confronted with complex scenes such as the trees in Central Park. Due to their computer generated origins, the Smurfs themselves convert into 3D quite well but as soon as we see a human being, the illusion is shattered. The 3D feels tacked on, rather than an integral part of the film and as such it never seems to serve the story or immerse the viewer.
Ultimately what The Smurfs represent is the kind of mass market filmmaking that seems to dominate Hollywood these days, a culture where hundreds of millions is spent producing wafer thin scripts and even more is spent promoting them. Mark Kermode has lamented the lack of risk taking amongst Hollywood filmmakers because with the kind of marketing budgets that most big movies possess these days, they’re almost guaranteed to be a hit. The Smurfs is a good example of this kind of bland, safe, mildly entertaining but slightly cynical filmmaking that tries to cover all the bases and offend no one. Sony Pictures were certainly confident the film would be a hit, they announced their intention to make three films before the first movie had even been released. Their confidence was well placed of course with The Smurfs raking in an enormous $562 million worldwide and the inevitable sequel is now in the works. Perhaps though this time around, they could find some room in the film’s massive budget for a couple of 3D cameras?