After annoying assaults by critters like chipmunks and penguins in mixed live action-and-animation family movies, it’s a pleasure—and, one might quickly add, a surprise—to encounter one that’s fairly enjoyable, especially since the little beasties in this case are “The Smurfs.” The squeaky-clean, elfin blue folk have usually been irritatingly cute in their earlier incarnations, and on occasion they are this time around, too. But the makers of the movie, which temporarily transports a modest cadre of the tribe to present-day New York City for an urban adventure, have wisely arranged things so that the Smurfs aren’t always at center-stage. And that turns out to be a stroke of—if not genius, at least modest intelligence.
The plot of “The Smurfs” is so simple that a very young child can understand it—which is as it should be, of course. When the little guys’ happy village is attacked by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael (“voiced” by Frank Welker), a group of them led by Papa Smurf (veteran Jonathan Winters) escape to present-day New York, where they’re reluctantly taken in by harried advertising man Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris), whose pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays) is far more enthusiastic about accommodating them. Gargamel and Azrael follow, though, and to escape back home the tiny guests must prepare a special magic ceremony to be conducted, appropriately enough, to coincide with the blue moon. Juxtaposed with all their shenanigans in the Big Apple (including an excursion to FAO Schwartz, where—naturally—they’re mistaken for toys) are Winslow’s efforts to complete an important campaign for cosmetics mogul Odile (Sofia Vergara) and his nervousness about his readiness to become a father. Of course the Smurfs will help him with both.
All of these is dealt with pleasantly enough, with Harris throwing himself into the part of the harassed human as though he were doing Broadway and voice talent like Winters, Katy Perry (as Smurfette), Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, George Lopez and Anton Yelchin (as Clumsy Smurf, who proves his mettle against all odds) doing engaging work. (Only Vergara disappoints, being much too strident, though lovely.) And the script tosses in enough jokes—often self-referential and mildly self-deprecatory—aimed over the heads of the small fry at their parents to make it more than tolerable to them as well.
But what really makes “The Smurfs” more winning than most kidflicks is Azaria’s wildly over-the-top turn, marked by some broad but funny slapstick bits. He’s abetted by the CGI-enhanced Azrael, easily the most amusingly expressive feline on screen in a long while—and, like so many cats, smarter than his master. It’s a pity that the makers felt compelled to end the movie with one of those big, effects-laden confrontations—pitting Gargamel against a Smurf army—that frankly dissipates the charm. It takes the picture into “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” territory, much to its detriment. Another drawback is the almost-inevitable application of 3D which, as usual, adds little to the effect.
So in “The Smurfs” we have a children’s movie that’s superior to others of its kind but not as good as it might have been. It should appeal especially to very young children who also won’t discern what some will criticize as bad language camouflaged by the habit of using “smurf” and “smurfing” in place of other words. (Of course, the joke of the supposed nastiness is that it actually lies in the brain of the hearer, not what it actually hears.) Overall, this is an uneven, relatively gentle, rather sweet but only sporadically enjoyable family flick with slapstick the kiddies will find smurfing fun and some throwaway bits adults—especially those who grew up either loving or hating the little blue creatures (and that maddening tune of theirs, whose annoyance potential is duly noted here)—will chuckle over too.