For a movie largely concerned with the misadventures of a character named Clumsy, “The Smurfs” is not without a certain deftness: Adorable and annoying, patently unnecessary yet kinda sweet, it’s a calculated commercial enterprise with little soul but an appreciable amount of heart. Unleashing the blue crew on the streets of New York, this chucklesome fish-out-of-water romp packs enough self-aware humor to keep chaperones and nostalgists awake as it piles on the Manhattan mayhem. If the popularity of the conceptually similar “Alvin and the Chipmunks” pics is any indication, B.O. should be magical, with an especially nice Smurf perf overseas.
As will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read Belgian artist Peyo’s original “Les Schtroumpfs” comics, or who grew up watching the 1981-89 animated series on NBC, the Smurfs lead a blissful, vaguely crypto-Marxist existence, their mushroom houses hidden in an enchanted forest “where feeling blue is a good thing.” Blue is also the color of the enchanted vortex that teleports Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters) and five of his countless children to present-day Gotham, pursued by the evil, beak-nosed sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria, hideous and hammy) and his feline familiar, Azrael (realized via a combo of live cats and CGI, and voiced by Frank Welker).
Through a series of mishaps caused by the aforementioned Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), the Smurfs are forced to reveal themselves to a friendly Manhattan couple, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and the very pregnant Grace (“Glee’s” Jayma Mays), who, once the shock wears off, agree to help them evade Gargamel and find their way home. Of course, Smurfy’s Law dictates that anything that can go wrong will, and soon these sentient plush toys are running amok in Times Square, causing a ruckus at a department store and, inevitably, jeopardizing Patrick’s marketing job at a high-end cosmetics firm.
Setting clueless fantasy characters adrift in bustling New York is a time-honored movie tradition that has yielded rich comic dividends in the likes of “Elf” and “Enchanted.” Unlike those human-centric pics, “The Smurfs” has tiny, mythical creatures to contend with, and their antics tend toward the noisy, nearly-getting-hit-by-a-car variety, with a few dollops of obligatory but not unduly crass bathroom humor.
While hardly sophisticated enough to transcend its strictly-for-kids designation, the script (credited to four writers) does wink knowingly in the direction of attentive adults; an early scene, in which Gargamel calls out the kink factor of having 100 Smurfs but only one Smurfette (Katy Perry), is funny enough that one wishes it were longer. But apart from having characters comment regularly on how irritating the Smurfs’ ubiquitous theme song is, the pic keeps its self-parodying instincts mostly in check. More time is spent espousing earnest, family-friendly lessons about the importance of embracing adventure, realizing your self-worth and, in one unexpectedly touching tete-a-tete between Patrick and Papa Smurf, being a good dad.
As directed by Raja Gosnell, by now a dab hand at blending CGI critters with live-action settings (“Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” the “Scooby-Doo” pics), “The Smurfs” hits its life-affirming, mall-wrecking beats with practiced polish and nary an objectionable or unpredictable moment. The fact that the Smurfs are fantastical beings from a parallel dimension does allow the film’s animation/vfx crew to get away with some less-than-seamless integration work; a scene in which Patrick embraces the little blue guys brings new meaning to the term “awkward hug.” Still, Harris and Mays make appealing enough human anchors, and Azaria’s high-camp wizard, when battling his Smurf adversaries, always seems to be interacting with characters rather than bluescreens.
As with the bigscreen versions of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Yogi Bear,” the addition of texture and dimension — here in the form of bright, blue eyeballs and pastel-light skin tones — winds up compromising some of the low-rent charm that made the characters appealing in the first place. These Smurfs grow on you, to be sure, though less endearingly than their comicstrip prototypes (briefly glimpsed in one self-referential sequence).
The eye-tickling 3D enhancement is most apparent in the Smurf-sucking portal and an opening tracking shot through the enchanted forest. Some additional musical backing, such as the classical pieces often used in the TV show, would not have been unwelcome.