Forget Neil Patrick Harris and his Manhattan romp with a gaggle of bitty blue creatures; the Smurfs franchise has been rebooted with the fully animated “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” And while the live-action incarnations looped in plotlines about business deals and fear of fatherhood to appeal to grown-ups, this cartoon doesn’t bother to appeal to anyone beyond the third grade.
Vaguely inspired by Peyo’s comics, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” welcomes audiences into the cheerful community of Smurfs, each of whom is named for their defining trait. The warm voiceover of their leader Papa Smurf introduces Brainy and Clumsy, Grouchy, Nosey and even Paranoid Smurf. Then there’s Smurfette, the lone female in the village, defined not by a character trait but by her gender alone. Initially, it’s intriguing that the film so immediately recognizes the one-note nature of most of its cute characters. But when reaching to define Smurfette beyond being “the girl,” this tiresome adventure falls short of saying much at all.
Instead, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” offers a rambling rehashing of Smurfette’s sexist backstory, told before in comics and “Smurfs 2.” See, she’s not a “real Smurf,” but one molded from clay that the wicked wizard Gargamel created to lure in these magical critters for use in his spells. The idea that the only female character was created for evil is cringe inducing on its face, but matters are made worse when director Kelly Asbury stays true to Smurfette’s evolution, transforming an angry Smurfette with dark ratty hair and a sneer to the bubbly blonde and pleasant character we know, one who is more defined by her high heels than any actual character trait. Never let us forget that Papa Smurf’s influence made Smurfette more approachable and alluring, even in a reboot created 50 years after her first appearance.
From this dismal beginning, Smurfette (Demi Lovato) gets a chance at self-discovery as she sets off on a quest to a mysterious lost village of Smurfs, who are to be Gargamel’s newest target. She’s stalked and then joined by the condescending Brainy (Danny Pudi), the catastrophe-causing Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), and the macho Hefty (Joe Manganiello), who spends most of his screen time flexing, flirting and otherwise pursuing a one-side romance with her through White Knighting. For her part, Smurfette shrugs off his advances with a terse, “Don’t be weird.” Perhaps her disinterest is intended to subvert the trope of the requisite love interest wedged into too many female-led movies. But even though the heroine has no interest in this romance, its subplot gets substantial screen time in her adventure. Between that and the sexist makeover, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” undercuts its central plot by suggesting that Smurfette’s identity isn’t about her self-discoveries as much as how the male Smurfs perceive her. Not even a half-hearted “girl power” second act reveal can undo this damaging message.
When “Smurfs: The Lost Village” isn’t treating its heroine with a vague disdain, it’s filled with color, pop songs and low-hanging jokes that might thrill young children. The Smurfs venturing into The Forbidden Forest allows for the animators to create whimsical creatures like fire-breathing dragonflies, glow-in-the-dark bunnies, and a ladybug that operates as Brainy’s printer, camera and personal assistant. There’re sequences of wholesome silliness as the blue crew gets lost in underground tunnels and rides a raging river that defies the laws of gravity, bouncing out of its riverbed like a breakdancing worm. Gargamel’s sidekicks — the well-known snarky cat Azrael, and a dunder-headed vulture — mug manically, and offer him a focal point for goofy rants. Basically, it treats kids as easy targets who’ll giggle over yowling and eyeglasses being perched on Smurf butt. But the film offers nothing for parents to enjoy beyond an 89-minute distraction for their children.
Beyond that, it’s a very loud movie, featuring lots of yelling in place of actual jokes. There’s a lack of texture to the animation, and even a nauseating wobbliness to the rubbery flesh of the Smurfs that’s less likely to appeal to more sophisticated moviegoers. The closest joke I recall that even bothered to play to parents was a lame sexual innuendo that sparks a callback from Smurfette’s Hefty shutdown: “Don’t be weird.” Perhaps a voice cast that includes Julia Roberts, Mandy Patinkin and Ellie Kemper is intended to engage adults. But frankly, it’s: too little, who cares.
As children can’t go to the theater alone, it’s astonishing any studio would bother making a mainstream movie that so resolutely refuses to cater in any way to the parents who will be begged to bring its key demographic. Sure, youngsters might be happy enough with the undercooked adventure, lackluster humor, vague heroine, and meandering shenanigans. But the grown-ups who accompany them will likely be smurftacularly bored.