Created by Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford under the pen name Peyo in 1958 and popularized in the U.S. by a 1980s animated TV series, the Smurfs, a community of small blue-skinned humanoids who live in the forest and speak in a bizarre dialect featuring liberal use of the word “smurf,” have never enjoyed a particularly coherent mythology. This is never so laughably apparent as in the Smurfs’ extreme gender imbalance, which, in most iterations, places a single female Smurf, named Smurfette, among dozens of males. With each Smurf defined by a single trait (Grouchy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, Vanity Smurf, and so forth), Smurfette’s tokenism is baked into her very identity, as even her name reduces her to “the girl one.” There’s a reason Katha Pollitt once dubbed the tokenization of female characters throughout a broad range of children’s entertainment as “The Smurfette Principle.”
In fact, per her origin in Peyo’s comics, Smurfette isn’t even a “real” Smurf, but the creation of the evil wizard Gargamel, who attempted to use her as a sort of Trojan horse to infiltrate the Smurf community until Papa Smurf broke the evil spell over her. While Smurfs: The Lost Village preserves this somewhat icky backstory, its screenplay, written by two women (Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon), makes an admirable attempt to retcon some gender parity into the Smurfs universe. The story centers on Smurfette’s (voiced by Demi Lovato) quest to warn the inhabitants of another village about the danger posed by Gargamel (Rainn Wilson). She sets off with three of her fellow Smurfs, Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Brainy (Danny Pudi), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), and when they reach the village, they find it’s a mirror image of their own community: one populated entirely by female Smurfs like the tough Smurfstorm (Michelle Rodriguez) and the hyperactive Smurfblossom (Ellie Kemper).
The Lost Village’s attempts to break down the insidious sexism of the Smurfs property is admirable and largely successful, cleverly twisting Smurfette’s conceptual blankness into a positive by emphasizing that she can be anything she wants to be. The film itself, however, is a disposable and rigorously conventional animated kiddie adventure with a standard quest narrative broken up by an action sequence or musical montage every 10 minutes or so to keep its young audience from getting too restless. After an extended moment of overbearing pathos, it all culminates in a cheery dance party, a now practically mandatory finale for children’s animated films.
The Lost Village seems content to be the sort of film parents can throw on an iPad to ensure 90 minutes’ worth of relative peace and quiet away from their antic children. The animation is glittery and brightly colored with the occasional inspired flourish, such as an eyeball plant or a green, glow-in-the-dark rabbit, but the film lacks any detailed specificity that would make it truly distinctive. The action sequences are whirlwinds of color and movement, practically hypnotic in their glitzy emptiness, while the jokes seemed timed to land softly, eliciting mild chuckles rather than guffaws. The Lost Village ultimately seems uninterested in truly delighting or exciting its kiddie audience; instead, it’s perfectly calibrated to keep them distracted.