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Review: “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow” Charms; “Slugterra: Slug Power!” Stumbles

by on September 11, 2013

I’ll admit that the Smurfs aren’t my favorite characters in the world, either in their original comic book or later animated forms. I like them fine, for the most part, and while I may like things like “The Purple Smurfs” or one of their holiday specials, I think I still tend to approach all things Smurfy with a slight handicap. Being underwhelmed with the Hanna-Barbera animated series, the earlier animated movie, and many of the comics has created something of a Smurf credibility gap. However, that handicap can lead to very pleasant surprises, which is exactly what happened with the recent The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow DVD. This is especially surprising since it’s a spin-off from the recent live-action/CGI hybrid movies, where I was unable to sit through the first one for more than a few minutes.

The Legend of Smurfy HollowThe disc is a little early for its Halloween theme, but the CGI Smurf framing device soon gives way to the hand-drawn animated meat of this special that’s a variation on Washington Irving’s classic Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The occasion is the annual Smurfberry contest, which Brainy Smurf has dominated for years. Gutsy Smurf, the resident Scottish Smurf, decides to follow Brainy to learn the secret of his success, which leads to deception, counter-deception, and potential peril for Brainy, Gutsy, and Smurfette at the hands of the evil Gargamel and his wicked cat Azrael. It all ends happily, even if the legendary Headless Horseman of Smurfy Hollow ends up getting involved before all is said and done.

The Legend of Smurfy Hollow is exceptionally well-animated. I wouldn’t have held it against Sony to cheap this special out, but they clearly had a non-trivial budget to work with and every cent of it shows on screen. It takes shows like The Legend of Korra or Young Justice to find hand-drawn animation that can compare, and even then I think those two action shows fall just short of The Legend of Smurfy Hollow. I really just can’t get over how beautiful this special is, and I suspect that achievement goes a long way in establishing my positive impressions of it. The story of Smurfy Hollow is a little more than a trifle, but it’s an extraordinarily well-done trifle. Like an excellent chocolate mousse, it feels lighter than air going down but inordinately satisfying once it’s finished. Its simple story is told with a gentle touch that nicely avoids treacle or saccharine (something the Hanna-Barbera TV show didn’t always manage), and if it may feel overly familiar, it’s still well-executed enough that it doesn’t matter so much.

The DVD is no-frills: the 22-minute special is in a fine anamorphic widescreen with a 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack, but no extras. Retailers are selling this DVD at rock-bottom prices, though, and I’d say it’s worth picking up on its technical merits alone.

The surprising technical and story success of The Legend of Smurfy Hollow might be why the latest Slugterra DVD feels so anemic compared to the first two (disc 1 reviewed, along with disc 2). Slugterra: Slug Power! packs 5 more episodes of the Nerd Corps series, but the best of them can only manage to be above average. That best episode would probably be its first, “Mecha Mutiny,” where Kord’s upgrades to the Shane Gang’s mecha-beast steeds malfunction and nearly get the whole gang killed. Heading to the repair depot to find out what’s wrong leads to a few surprises and the return of Dr. Blakk, who was mostly absent from the episodes on the prior DVD.

Slugterra Slug Power DVD ArtThe remaining episodes are all fair-to-middling. “Undertow” tries to pit the Shane Gang against a band of pirates plying a subterranean sea. The episode is most notable for its unusual setting and for stretching the boundaries of slug dueling mechanics further than they should go. One of the bonus “Slugisodes” documented that slugs fired in duels will find their way back to their owners or their homes independently; having those duels over water begs the question of whether they’ll drown first. “Mario Bravado” forces Eli Shane to learn slug trick shooting from the title character, a former Slugterran celebrity who has seemingly holstered his slug blaster for good. It’s nice to see Eli being compelled to learn something, but the plot twists are pretty predictable. There is a nice high-speed chase at the end of the episode, though.

Sadly, the disc ends with the disappointing two-part episode “The New Kid,” introducing a new ally named Twist in the first episode, and while his name is supposed to describe his skill at evasion, it’s also a pretty blatant telegraph of his role in the episode. I find it’s impossible to talk about the episode much without essentially giving away what small surprise it has in store, but the reality is that all but the most naive will see the big surprise coming well before it arrives, while the rest of the episode is mostly paint-by-numbers. At the least, these last episodes bring back Dr. Blakk with a vengeance, and “The New Kid” promises to shake up the status quo a bit and raise the stakes for the Shane Gang.

The stunningly beautiful and busy animation of Legend of Smurfy Hollow also makes the relatively sparse and empty environment of Slugterra stand out more. It’s a real weakness of CGI that it can’t do crowd scenes well on a TV budget, and while Slugterra is not the only offender in that regard (Green Lantern and Beware the Batman were both light on background characters), it definitely suffers in comparison to something like Legend of Smurfy Hollow. That being said, Shout! Factory has delivered another solid DVD experience: anamorphic widescreen video paired to a 5.1 Dolby Digital Soundtrack, with a short behind-the-scenes featurette and 3 new Slugisodes serving as bonus features.

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