Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Smurfs: The Lost Village (2017) - Movie Review

I probably have the worst first impression of the Smurfs possible, as my first full-length encounter with them was through the 2011 film. Directed by the numbnuts that gave us the ever-popular comedic classic Beverly Hills Chihuahua, the live-action Smurfs film is easily one of the hardest films I’ve ever sat through. Thankfully, it didn’t fall into my purview for reviews, because I’m fairly certain it would’ve just been “fuck this movie” repeated 300-some times. I completely skipped the sequel, wanting to keep what little sanity I have left, and then the trailers for today’s film hit… and you cannot possibly imagine how much relief washed over me when I saw that this was not only a full CGI production but that it was a reboot of the series.
Going against what most would consider common sense, those two prospects combined with the phenomenally low bar the Raja Gosnell films set for the IP actually made me hopeful that this would be good. Given how this is the year that has audience expectations in a 24-hour shooting gallery, I can only hope that my optimism isn’t proven worthless.

The plot: In the small hamlet of Smurf Village, Smurfette (Demi Lovato) is the only girl in the entire village. She also doesn’t have a defining character trait, unlike the men in the village, making her feel out-of-place. However, when she discovers that there may be another village out in the wild, Smurfette, Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello), Clumsy Smurf (Jack McBrayer) and Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi) set out to find it before the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) finds it first.
After the supreme headache that was the cast of the live-action films, up to and including casting Katy “As far from a credible actor as you can get” Perry as Smurfette, the acting here is honestly pretty good. Lovato, even without direct comparisons, holds up well as this far-more immediate version of Smurfette, a casting choice that helps a lot with the film’s ultimate reason for being. Manganiello, McBrayer and Pudi are also decent as the main supporting cast, and the fact that they are as surprisingly well-defined as they are make their efforts feel even more worthwhile. The rest of the Smurfs are made up of bit parts that range from the well-fitting (Mandy Patinkin and Julia Roberts as the leaders of their respective villages) to the potentially questionable (Jeff Dunham as Farmer Smurf) to the roles that pretty much cast themselves (Gordon bloody Ramsey as Baker Smurf), and they mostly work out. Mostly.
Once we get to the titular Lost Village, Meghan “Let’s Marvin Gaye and lose the will to live” Trainor and Ellie Kemper will likely get on the older audience’s nerves in record time, bringing down the cast average considerably. Wilson as Gargamel is easily the best thing about this film, as his comedic timing and ability to portray laughable ineptitude is top-notch; seriously, every scene he’s in is incredibly entertaining.

We’re dealing with Sony Pictures Animation, the oddest duck in the family-friendly market but, outside of the other Smurfs films, their pedigree for animation is honestly pretty solid. This film, though, is just okay visually speaking. The character designs are very round and bouncy as per kid’s film parameters, the world-building like the aggressive plant life and the gravity-defying river are decent but unfortunately the ‘camera work’ can get a little too hectic at times to really enjoy them. It’s like they were aiming for Hotel Transylvania’s hyperactive style but missed the incredible framing, focus and ultimate patience that was needed to make that work in the first place.
There’s also this little oddity at the start where it essentially becomes a documentary about the Smurfs, with them talking directly to the camera and the narrator going over the different Smurfs that live in the village. If this was a recurring thing, it would at least be unique and kind of interesting, but unfortunately that is completely dropped within the first ten minutes. With how much this looks like so many other kid’s films of late, it kind of needed that edge to stand out properly.

As for the comedy in the film, it is weirdly inconsistent. I say that because, outside of Gargamel who never ceases to be endearingly goofy, the jokes can range wildly from decent to outright lazy. Just as an example, we unsurprisingly get quite a few puns around the word blue. Now, they thankfully don’t go as far as the live-action films in terms of utter desperation (read: the gang trying to blend in next to ads for Blu-Ray players and the Blue Man Group) but they definitely grate against that part of me that has a love-hate relationship with puns. That said, I can’t stay too mad at a film that has enough sense to include a “say blue cheese” camera joke; I’ll admit, that’s a new one on me.
However, things start to take a turn for the worst once they reach the titular Lost Village. Aside from Kemper’s Smurf Blossom being overly energetic in a very annoying way, their ‘getting along with new friends’ montage is undercut with literally the laziest music joke I have ever seen/heard. Let’s see if you can guess what it is: Name the most annoying song you can think of with the word ‘blue’ in the title. Yes. Seriously. They actually went with Eiffel 65. God, I couldn’t have been more tempted to just leave mid-film but, thankfully, it is over with relatively quickly.

Even with this film’s milquetoast qualities, from the iffy comedy to the passable animation, there actually is something here that makes it worthy of note. Smurfette, in no uncertain terms, is the main character here and, knowing that even G-rated films will go with the romantic angle with female leads, she is a character in her own right and not defined by her relationships with others. Save for her connection to Gargamel, in what is admittedly a nice callback to the character’s literary origins, but even then, this definitely seems to be trying for feminine positivity. It is somewhat diluted by the aforementioned dip in entertainment value upon reaching the village, not to mention how Smurfette’s companions arguably have more nuanced characterisation than she does, but even as a concept, this film deserves some props. I mean, a female-led fantasy story? This is a lot rarer than it has any right to be.
Not to say that it entirely succeeds though, considering the conclusion makes her out to be a blue-tinted Barbie doll in how they equate malleability itself as a character trait, but the fact that this film is actually trying for something along these lines is still commendable. I mean, considering the discussions of tokenism that usually surround Smurfette, this is quite refreshing. Of course, that’s when looking at it on its own terms; compared to the ‘content’ of the live-action films, this might as well be a Laika production in the relative increase in effort.

All in all, while the pro-feminist undertones and some legitimately funny moments do buoy it somewhat, this is ultimately a pretty mediocre affair. That said, I still maintain that this is at least passable as a distraction for little kids, and maybe they can latch onto the film’s message better than adults who have wade through everything else first, and it’s certainly a leap in the right direction after the travesties that were the live-action films. Not that I’m advocating for settling for less but, again, this isn’t really that bad; it’s just average.

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