There’s a simple reason for kids to like the Stuart Little movies, the modern Alvin And The Chipmunks franchise, and the new live-action movie The Smurfs: They can identify with the animated protagonists, who are all impulsive, curious, undersized and out of their element in an adult-scale world, and surrounded by judgmental big people who regularly get shrill and screechy over every teensy little furniture-smashing mistake. That explains the frantic behavior of the title characters in The Smurfs: As they dash around displaying no impulse control, little sense of self-preservation, and a tendency to yammer out whatever’s on their minds, they’re just acting like ultra-exaggerated children. Actual kids may find this fun, but for adults, watching The Smurfs may feel a little too much like trying to wrangle an overcrowded kiddie birthday party.
The movie opens in a CGI wonderland straight out of the ’80s cartoon version of The Smurfs, as the little blue people lead their ideal, song-happy life while dodging live-action sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria, in a shamelessly go-for-broke performance) and his cat Azrael. Then a magical portal dumps Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Clumsy, Gutsy, Brainy, and Grouchy (voiced, respectively, by Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry, Anton Yelchin, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, and George Lopez) in New York City’s Central Park, and they must enlist the aid of harried, newly promoted cosmetics-company marketing VP Neil Patrick Harris and his pregnant wife Jayma Mays in an effort to get back home. In a vague attempt to appeal to all possible viewers, The Smurfs features toilet gags and self-aware meta-humor mildly mocking the Smurfs’ cheery theme song, naming conventions, and overuse of the word “smurf.” It’s a thoroughly modern comedy crammed with product placement, pop-culture references, easy callbacks, and celebrity cameos, but it’s mostly aimed at viewers who can’t get enough of characters smacking face-first into glass surfaces.
Director Raja Gosnell helmed Beverly Hills Chihuahua and both Scooby-Doo movies; his previous financial success with CGI animal comedy may explain his focus on abuse of and reaction shots from Azrael. (They’d be far more convincing if he wasn’t a real cat 20 percent of the time, which makes the CGI version look painfully fake.) Gosnell gets similarly fake, enunciating-for-the-back-seats performances out of his game cast; Harris and Mays in particular pound through various halfhearted, barely there storylines with impeccably crafted earnestness. ’80s nostalgists who always wanted to see Gargamel get Tasered—or watch rapping Smurfs improvising a version of “Walk This Way” with lyrics about Smurfette’s hotness—need look no further than this update, but there’s little reason for childless adults to see The Smurfs, unless they’re just curious to know how far filmmakers can go in using feigned sincerity to sell a thoroughly calculated, cynical product.