|Neil Patrick Harris plays Rock Band with Gutsy, Brainy, and Grouchy Smurf in “The Smurfs.’’ (Columbia Pictures)|
The Smurfs and friends (sort of) take Manhattan
‘The Smurfs’’ continues the improbable journey of a tribe of little blue gremlins from the pen of a Belgian comic-book artist in 1958 to the multi-tentacled entertainment franchise of today. Would Peyo (real name Pierre Culliford) recognize the charmingly simple critters he originally dubbed “Schtroumpfs’’ in this noisy, formulaic family film? The best thing about “The Smurfs’’ is that the answer is probably yes.
In most respects, the movie’s pure Saturday-afternoon kiddie product, as close as you can come to popular CGI/live-action crud like “Alvin and the Chipmunks’’ and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua’’ without the lawyers getting involved. Early on, six of the major Smurfs from Smurf Village are whisked through a magic portal to Manhattan, where they befriend human costars and scramble past the usual tourist landmarks on their way back home.
There is creepy animal CGI. There is needless 3-D. There are random movie quotes. (Grouchy Smurf, crossing the street: “I’m walkin’ here!’’ and, really now, the Venn diagram overlap between audiences for both this movie and “Midnight Cowboy’’ has to be minimal. In fact, I think I’m it.) The voice of Grouchy is provided by George Lopez, who truly has to be stopped. In all, the worst parts of “The Smurfs’’ can probably be summed up in two words: Smurf rap.
Then there are the good parts, or the less painful parts for parents and other stray adults who find themselves in attendance. The human couple befriended by the Smurfs are played by Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays, the latter leaving her nervous energy back on the “Glee’’ set and appearing refreshingly relaxed. Harris manages to class up whatever he touches, even if the sight of him repeatedly hitting himself with an umbrella probably won’t go on the career highlight reel.
As the villainous wizard Gargamel, Hank Azaria gets to put on a baldy wig and fake buck-teeth and overact as broadly as he can. A little of this goes a long way unless you’re 6 years old, which is the point. Sofia Vergara, of TV’s “Modern Family,’’ also shows up as Harris’s meaniepants boss, but she shares the screenplay’s confusion as to what, exactly, she’s doing here.
“The Smurfs’’ wears its cross-promotional crassness on its sleeve. A scene set in FAO Schwarz makes room for product placement of all kinds, with Mars’s M&M candies emerging as the most shameless offender. And I hate to be PC, but does Smurfette - the lone female Smurf in the movie - have to be a shopaholic twit? If they can give her the voice of Katy Perry, can’t they give her some of Perry’s girl-power oomph? Heck, send her to Columbia Business School and let her take over the long-range financial planning of Smurf Village.
The other characters will be familiar to fans of the comic and the iconic 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. Clumsy Smurf (voiced by Anton Yelchin) is the adorably klutzy hero, backed up by Grouchy, Smurfette, Brainy (Fred Armisen), and the doughty, kilt-wearing Gutsy (Alan Cumming). Leading them all is Papa Smurf, whose gentle wisdom remains the most appealing aspect of “The Smurfs’’ for kids and grown-ups alike. The bottom line: Any movie that gives Jonathan Winters work is doing something right.