One of the many cartoons that obsessed my preadolescent imagination during the ’80s, the Smurfs were the theme of many a birthday party, bedsheet, and lunchbox. My devotion to them was such that, well into my 20s, I constructed an elaborate Smurf village in my living room using a near-complete collection of Schleich figurines—an elaborate tableaux featuring cottages, a windmill, even an airplane I clumsily affixed to a ceiling panel. That village is now extinct, and like so many cartoons from my youth that I’ve revisited in recent years, from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to ThunderCats, so is the magic of the Smurfs. Now comes The Smurfs movie—directed by Raja Gosnell, the go-to hack for live-action adaptations of classic animated properties, and scripted by four automatons whose names suggest they may be part of the Witness Relocation Program—to nail the coffin shut, to remind us that there’s no bigger bitch in life than nostalgia.
Out of sheer desperation, people speculate about the communist leanings of the Smurfs, imagining them gangbanging Smurfette and doing more with mushrooms than just living inside them—to give meaning to what is essentially without meaning. There was no grace or wit to the cartoon program, which told almost the same story every week, of adorable but awkwardly voiced blue critters avoiding the clutches of a bungling wizard and his screechy cat. In a sense, the movie is remarkably faithful to the show’s redundant and often inexplicable formula, with Gargamel (played with vampishly Jerry Lewis-esque gusto by Hank Azaria) and the miscolored Azrael chasing after the Smurfs to harness their essence. Like the show, this boring, lazy, clumsily staged, overly lit, unnecessarily 3D-ed contraption even culminates with some half-hearted moral hectoring—in this case, the togetherness of the Smurfs works to validate heteronormative values.
The Smurf village is adorably detailed, as are the Smurfs themselves, right down to the wrinkles and whiskers on Papa Smurf’s face, but it’s the humans that sink the film. When Papa Smurf, Smurfette (who gets the film’s only gut-buster, a dig at one Passive Aggressive Smurf), Brainy Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, and the curiously Scottish Gutsy randomly land in New York City after travelling through a wormhole in the Enchanted Forest, they must find their way back to their mythical Smurf village with the help of B-list TV actors. That Clumsy will save the day is a no-brainer on par with Tim Gunn, playing an aide to Sofía Vergara’s makeup entrepreneur, cringingly uttering “make it work” at a crucially un-crucial moment. Props to the smarty-pants Doogie Howser for acknowledging the fundamental absurdity of the little blue “figurative constructs,” but like everything in the film, from Blue Man Group and Blu-ray visual jokes to cameos by Liz Smith and Michael Musto, the actor’s conviction is smurfing transparent.