Sony Goes Back European Drawing Board

At Annecy, Sony Pictures Animation’s Bob Osher and director Kelly Asbury sneak peek tests, hint at plot of totally CG ‘Smurfs’ cartoon

ANNECY, France – A Smurfs-origins storyline; a forest setting; a hunkier Papa Smurf; a village that looks less a fun holiday camp, more like enchanted woods hamlet of the original comic books: An Annecy Festival Work in Progress  presentation Tuesday suggested that these look likely to be some of the changes in Sony Pictures Animation’s upcoming and now fully computer animated “Smurfs” movie.

As already announced, “The Smurfs Movie,” which will hit theaters in 2016, will move closer to the comicbooks of the original Smurf creator, Belgium’s Pierre Culliford, known as Peyo.

That is going with the market flow. Both CG/live-action hybrids, “The Smurfs” and “The Smurfs 2” grossed a combined  $911.3 million at the worldwide box office, though “The Smurfs 2” was $200 million down on the first; 75% and 80% of those respective trawls, however, came from foreign.

At a good-humored Work in Progress session at France’s Annecy Festival on Tuesday, “Smurfs” director Kelly Asbury (“Shrek 2,” “Gnomeo & Juliet”) and Bob Osher, prexy of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, underscored what a rich source of inspiration Sony will be mining in going back to Peyo’s original comicbooks.

“The Smurfs Movie” is still in early development and has a long way to go before reaching a final look.

But Asbury and Osher offered specific insights on the direction they were now taking the franchise, drilling down on what looks set to be a thoroughgoing reboot of the franchise.

“This is not a third film. This is really the start of a new generation of ‘Smurfs’ films,” Osher said at Annecy in what sounds like a production mantra.

“We really have been staring from scratch, from the story forward,” Asbury agreed.

To present the Smurfs like they’d never been seen before required “research, research, research,” Asbury argued by way of an intro to his presentation.

And the first place he started was the work of Peyo itself, he added. Production designer Noelle Triaureau, art director on “Hotel Transylvania,” and character designer Patrick Mate – who both trained in France and grew up loving the Smurfs – are aiding him.

Peyo’s appealing and beautiful animation is “a European storybook style which dates back to the 1900s,” Asbury said.

Along with that, the upcoming movie will tap into the European impressionist palette: “I love the colors and the sense of light. Not a lot of browns and blacks, utilizing color to make the world glow,” Asbury said, screening a Manet painting.

Peyo’s quaint, appealing world can be seen in a try-out design for the village (see picture), with a distant, nearly Turner-esque misted blue sky, meticulously grooved and mottled barks of huge trees, the Smurfs mushroom houses in raspberry red, mature peach orange and dun yellow.

Though animators are testing designs, “The Smurfs Movie” is being meticulously prepared, down to the smallest detail. For example, whether moss can be used at the base of trees (Answer: yes, at the moment) or individual leaves for the trees.

To capture Peyo’s miniature world, props will be a bit larger.

“We want to give the sense of the reality these characters live in but also endow the film with fantasy and fun,” said Asbury.

The exact storyline is still under wraps: The screenplay is in early development. Some of the story will take place in the Belgian medieval city of Bruges; animals will play a big part, a wry comic role, in the movie; and torks play a huge role, Asbury said.

“The Smurfs Movie” is “more set in the Smurfs world. It’s a forest-oriented story. It involves a lot of magic and hints as to the origins of the Smurfs, who they are and where they came from,” he added. “There’s a lot of history of the Smurfs involved, a lot of fun. Gargamel is the arch villain that they have to stop.”

One key character in the movie will be Papa Smurf, who will be made “a bit younger, a bit more vital, a more Indiana Jones of a Smurf,” said Asbury, flipping up designs to illustrate Papa Smurf’s jaunty walk.

Smurfette, Clumsy, Hefty, Baker, Chef, Farmer, Greedy and Gutsy will be back.

There will also be a couple of mew Smurfs. One: Clowny Smurf.

Jay Sherick and David Ronn (“Spin City,” “The Smurfs, “The Smurfs 2”) are beginning to write the screenplay.

“A lot of TV writers in the U.S. are very comfortable working in the animation world because they’re used to working in a collaborative way,” Osher said.

Camerawork will involve a lot of static shots, as seen in a genial test audition short for “The Smurfs Movie” screened in Annecy that used an establishing shot of the village, then panned down to a oath in it, and locked on the Smurfs auditioning for the movie.

“My favorite films left the camera rest, and the actors and characters have a stage to act. Move the camera when it’s motivating,” Asbury argued, citing “The Godfather” and “Pinocchio.”

Also on board “The Smurfs Movie”: producer Jordan Kerner, who originally brought the Smurfs to Sony Pictures Animation and was producer of the first two movies as well as the new Smurfs movie; co-producer Mary Ellen Bauder, who produced “Smurfy Hollow”; and Brandon Jeffords, head of story on “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.”

A totally animated movie may find a different audience than the first films, which were live action/animated hybrids, Osher suggested.

“Someone who is very very intelligent recently said that the hybrid format made the film inherently feel younger. When you’re in a CG world and can suspend disbelief, and not know what’s real and false, it has a more general audience. Our intent is to make the storytelling more sophisticated.”

“The Smurfs Movie” is not a complete leap in the dark: In a dry run for the fully CG animate movie, Sony made two 2D TV-length shorts, with about 18 minutes of 2D animation. One, “The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow,” which Osher showed an excerpt from, was in competition at Annecy last year.

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