Belgian artist Peyo's charmingly twee comic strip characters Les Schtroumphs started out life in 1958 and gradually became a phenomenon known to children all over the world. The seventies saw many of the toys turning up, now as 'Smurfs', on UK and US shores, and their massive, unexpected success was enough to lure Hanna-Barbera and the NBC Network into creating the cartoon show now both fondly and not-quite-so-fondly remembered by millions. Not bad going for a young cartoonist's quaint, idealised depiction of pre-industrial, pre-feminist Belgian rural life.
However, where Peyo and his studio wrote and drew many Smurf stories set 'long, long ago, deep in the forest', the four writers involved with this new movie's screenplay fail to even come up with one, instead choosing to transport the friendly little imps to twenty-first century New York for a one-size-fits-all 'fish out of water' story that immediately brings to mind abominations on the scale of Masters of the Universe (1987) and Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998). You see, for Sony, it's not enough to cash in on thirty-and-forty-something parents' dim remembrances of the cartoon and toys. The contemporary setting allows them to also groom a new generation of consumers with blatant product placements for, amongst other things, Sony laptops (natch), Blu-Ray (also natch), M&Ms, Google, Hello Kitty and Lego.
Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) plays Gargamel, the evil wizard (from the original comics and cartoons), who manages to finally find the Smurfs' village and set about destroying it, causing several Smurfs to flee through a vortex (that likely wasn't in the comics at all) to 'our' world. Before long they're in the care of Dougie Howser M.D star Neil Patrick Harris who – stop me if any of this sounds familiar – is in a high pressure job and has twenty four hours to come up with the ad campaign of his life or he's fired. Added to this, his partner, played by Heroes and Glee semi-regular Jayma Mays, is with child and, well, gee, he hasn't properly come to terms with this yet. The crazy antics of the Smurfs make him look out of control to his workmates, but ultimately his experience protecting said Smurfs from the evil wizard makes him realise that, yep, he's decent father material after all.
Indeed, we have already endured this film a million times. Early on, when we're first introduced to Harris' character, the film seems as though it's going to be taking some sort of satirical sideswipe at the fashion and cosmetic industries – but then doesn't. What it does instead is offer up a number of piss and fart jokes, including a scene where a Smurf falls down a toilet. In one hellishly cringe-worthy moment, Harris and some Smurfs mime and sing to 'Walk This Way' whilst playing Guitar Hero, a game that rose to prominence on the, oh yeah, Sony Playstation.
On the plus side, it must be said that the Smurfs and their attendant characters and habitats look exactly like they do in the comics. One can see the love and care that Sony's animators have put into their creations on screen, making it all the more a pity that it's in the service of an end product so crass. Most of the acting is fine. Harris and Mays are personable enough, Azaria has a great time as the naughty wizard and his scenes with the CGI cat Azreal are the best things in the entire movie. Hiring a voice actor to play the role is a nice touch - Gargamel was voiced in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon by Dick Dastardly himself, Paul Winchell. Philip Meheux's cinematography is infinitely better than the film deserves. A fitting follow-up to auteur Raja Gosnell's previous masterwork, Beverley Hills Chihuahua (2008), apparently intended to be the first of a trilogy; a summer 2013 release date has already been announced for The Smurfs 2. Who wants to put money on them coming back through a vortex to our world again in that one?
Approach with caution. Undemanding kids will probably enjoy, but they may just ask you why you haven't got Blu-Ray yet on the way home. Those computer generated little blue people scurrying around on the screen aren't really loveable Smurfs; they are in fact Cyberdyne Systems Model T-1000s masquerading as them, sent by Skynet to infiltrate your family unit in a bid to hasten the inevitable all-devouring capitalist apocalypse.
Expected Rating : 4 out of 10
The Smurfs is in cinemas now