When The Smurfs live-action/CG animation film was announced, there was a sizable portion of the original show’s fanbase that considered it an abomination. Despite that backlash, it made a ton of money, so it must’ve done something right. I suspect that many of its viewers had never seen the original cartoon, so this was their first introduction to the characters and universe. I’m mostly in the latter category; I have seen the original cartoon but was never a big fan and, as a result, was not a regular viewer. So this review will mostly be analyzing the sequel to the first film on its own and not in comparison to the TV series.
The main focal point of this film is Smurfette (the only female in Smurf Village), who is dismayed that everyone in the village has seemingly forgotten her birthday (in reality, they’re feigning ignorance so she doesn’t discover her surprise party), a theme which has been done many times before. Enter two evil smurfs, goth-like Vexy and doofus Hackus, who use temptation to lure her to the dark side. They are led by bald, cloaked Gargamel (played live-action by Hank Azaria), who is nevertheless a highly successful stage magician. Temptation is also a rather overused idea, but it’s a theme that is relateable (and thus, engaging) because everyone goes through it. Four Smurfs, led by Papa Smurf, head into the real world (specifically, Paris) to save her, and most of the movie consists of set pieces where the miniature-sized blue creatures encounter calamity after calamity in the urban environment.
Oh, I see I forgot to mention the live action actors. Yes, there are humans other than Gargamel in this movie (the main one is a father, Patrick, played by Neil Patrick Harris), and at times they felt like they belonged in a different movie. This is particularly true in Patrick’s strained relationship with his stepfather. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Smurfs interacting with real people, but only if the humans add something to the proceedings. Here, the Smurfs alone could have carried this film, so the humans just felt superfluous, even if the whole son/stepfather subplot sort of ties into the theme of family that occurs in Smurfette’s plot.
Speaking of superfluous, I don’t remember if it was like this in the original show, but many of the Smurfs in this movie aren’t really that developed and exist mostly to act out the description in their names (i.e. Grouchy is never happy, Brainy is smart, Vanity looks at himself in a mirror). True, there’s a running gag in the film where Grouchy tries to go against his namesake, but it doesn’t add anything to the plot and feels more like a gimmick than actual character development. And of course, as amusing as he can be at times, Gargamel is a typical “evil for the sake of evil” bad guy who is only notabile for his chemistry with his smart orange cat Azrael. To the movie’s credit, Smurfette does go through development as she’s unsure where she belongs, but the rest of the Smurfs felt more like props designed to bring her back to Smurf Village.
The movie has its positive points. While the movie has a lot of energy, it isn’t relentless wall-to-wall noise. There are quieter moments to give everything some breathing room. I’m also glad the movie wasn’t heavy on toilet humor, which kids love but most grow out of as they get older. There are a handful of such jokes, but they’re easy to gloss over. In terms of humor, there are some amusing bits, most of them coming from Azaria’s portrayal of Gargamel. There are also some memorable set pieces, like Smurfette bonding with Vexy and Hackus by riding birds or sending a ferris wheel rolling down the street.
Perhaps the biggest positive is the overall presentation. I know I said I wasn’t going to draw too many comparisons to the TV series, but one area where these films easily outclass the ’80s series is in the visuals. When you compare the TV budget work of Hanna-Barbera (notorious for their limited, uncreative animation and corner cutting) to full CG animation on a theatrical budget with more elaborate camerawork, it’s clear who the winner is. The backgrounds are also a step up: Smurf Village looks gorgeous and full of detail (what little of it we see), and the Smurfs blend in nicely during the scenes set in the real world. Speaking of the Smurfs, I enjoyed their character designs, since they don’t radically alter the designs of the show, but make them work in the 3D environment. Easily my favorite-looking character in the film is Gargamel’s second-hand cat, Azrael, who has the body language of a real cat but is sometimes rendered in CG, with exaggerated mouth and eye movements in certain moments. The result is an adorable feline who made me think, “Awww cute,” whenever he was on-screen. Kudos to the animators for successfully blending the two mediums with that character.
Special features on the Blu-ray/DVD set include: “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow”, a 22-minute story parodying Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” story. Outside of the bookends, the special is done in 2D animation, and while not quite feature film quality, it is noticeably a step above typical TV budget hand-drawn work. To be honest, I found this special more engaging that the movie! There are numerous featurettes: The six-minute “Evolution of Smurfette,” a five minute piece on Vexy and Hackus, a four minute piece on Azrael, and a three-minute “Evolution of the Naughties.” There’s also a three-minute piece on how Azrael was achieved through a combination of live-action footage and CG when necessary. Finally, there are roughly three minutes of deleted scenes, none of which are all that substantial.
The Smurfs 2 is reasonably entertaining and is better than the Smurfs diehards would have you believe. Obviously, for my thirty-year old self, many of its themes are pretty familiar, but they will seem fresh to kids (one of the target audiences for this film). I also can’t deny that, it kept my attention while I was watching it, but it hasn’t meant much to me a day later and I suspect it will mean even less down the line. In a way, it represents the “junk food” mentality of many family films; they’re decent time-passers but they don’t really challenge the audience all that much, reach very high, or provide compelling conflict. The Incredibles, this ain’t.