The Smurfs / The Smurfs: Christmas Carol
Columbia/Tri-Star // PG // $40.99 // December 2, 2011
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted November 26, 2011
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Graphical Version
In 10 Words or Less
Not even little blue creatures can have it both ways

The screenshots in this review are from the DVD release.

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Good animation, Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara
Likes: The Smurfs cartoons, Hank Azaria
Dislikes: Most TV-show movie adaptations
Hates: Grouchy

The Movie
There seems to be three ways to approach a movie adaptation of a TV show. Either you do a straight adaptation, which appeals to the show's fans but risks alienating new audiences, re-invent it entirely, so it appeals to a wider audience but is mostly unrecognizable to older fans, or have fun with the concept and create something new and fresh. Of course, then there's the rules for adapting kids shows, where you can either focus entirely on entertaining kids and bore adults to tears or you can put nods to the parents in the room that go over the kids heads, but don't interfere with their fun and make, well, a Pixar film. Well, The Smurfs tries to do all these things, but the results are an uneven film that doesn't fully satisfy any audience.

The mythology of the Smurfs, as established in the '80s kids cartoon series, is respected here by opening the film in the Smurfs' mushroom village, hidden in a medieval forest. These little blue creatures, led by the elder Papa Smurf (the perfectly cast Jonathan Winters), each are identified by their main skill or interest, be it the intelligent Brainy Smurf (Fred Armisen), the beauty-obsessed Vanity Smurf (John Oliver) or the awkward Clumsy Smurf (Anton Yelchin.) They are living their idyllic lives, dancing and singing, when they are attacked by the evil wizard Gargamel (a live-action Hank Azaria) who uses their essence to power his magic. To escape, they go through a secret portal that lands them in modern-day New York City. Unfortunately, Gargamel (and his cat sidekick Azrael) aren't far behind.

Here is the "real" world, our hero is Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) a creative director at a cosmetics company, who has a hard-to-please boss at work (Modern Family's Sofia Vergara) and a pregnant wife at home (Glee's Jayma Mays), and he's not really able to cope with either, as he's struggling with the creative limitations of his job and his readiness to be a father. So the last thing he needed was a gang of overly-cheerful forest creatures to take over his life, nor the evil wizard chasing them. The two wolds collide when Clumsy Smurf accidentally screws up Patrick's work, while the Smurfs offer Patrick a chance to give parenting a test run. If this sounds overly adult for a kids movie, it is, a problem that plagues the film at any point following the initial introduction of the Smurfs. Any scene between Harris and Mays focusing on their relationship and future as parents left my 5-year-old looking around for some distraction (which is no sleight on their abilities.)

In fact, it would be hard to get on any of the main stars in this film for their acting, especially when it comes to Azaria, who goes all in as Gargamel, playing him to the hilt and having a lot of fun with it. The voices are mostly enjoyable as well, with Katy Perry doing a surprisingly fine job as Smurfette, though limiting the Smurfs to a select few leaves a lot of actors on the sideline, including the limited use of Paul Reubens as Jokey Smurf. But none of them, even Harris, who continues to make it clear he can be enjoyable in just about any film, can save this film from its own confusion. There's no reason this couldn't have been a sunshiny adventure film for kids, full of slapstick comedy and goofy action (complete with Azaria's Gargamel.) But the serious tale of Patrick feels completely out-of-sync with the Smurf fun, and the creepy way the Smurfs are hunted down is bound to turn off younger viewers (who will already struggle with the film's length), narrowing the film's core audience to a small group that we should probably keep an eye on.

The Discs
The film arrives on a single Blu-Ray disc, in a double-width BD keepcase with a tray for the two DVDs, sporting an animated menu offering the option to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the subtitles and check out the extras. The disc offers audio in English and French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and Putonghua), Korean, Thai and English audio description Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Chinese (Cantonese, Traditional and Simplified), Korean and Thai.

The Quality
The Smurfs is mostly a technical achievement, a fact driven home by how good the Blu-Ray looks, from the brilliance of the Smurfs themselves to the effort put into integrating them into New York City. Though I certainly didn't completely buy the interaction between Harris and his new friends, that's at least partially because the clarity of this presentation makes the CG tricks more obvious. On the other hand, the transfer shines during complex scenes like the destruction of the Smurfs' village, where there's a ton of tiny details in each mushroom Gargamel stomps out of existence. Color is excellent throughout the presentation, including the fleshtones on the human characters, while the black levels are sufficiently deep and compression artifacts can't be found.

This film sounds terrific, thanks to a very active DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that enhances everything you hear, from the dialogue, which gets beautiful placement on- and off-screen, to the ambient and front-stage sound effects, which are helped along by a very dynamic mix that utilizes panning and positioning beautifully, to the soundtrack, which is strong, yet appropriate, letting you hear the world around the Smurfs clearly, without distortion. It's easily one of the best non-Pixar family films I've heard in recent memory.

The Extras
For such a critically unappreciated family film, I will admit I was surprised to see that there were two audio commentaries included on this release, as I expected a slight group of extras. Instead, there are two genuinely good tracks to listen to, which will be of interest to fans of the film and those interested in how effects-focused films are made. The first track features Gosnell, who is a very conversational commentator, and he offers a ton of background on the making of the film, including plenty of notes on dealing with the studio, technical details on the shooting and what it takes to make a film with so much CG animation. Though he doesn't pretend to be curing cancer, he is naturally very positive about the job they did, which may annoy some viewers, but it's an entertaining and informative listen.

The second commentary features producer Jordan Kerner, writers J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn and VFX supervisor Richard Hoover. Together, they hold a lot of knowledge about the development of the film, so there are no dead spots when they chat about the film, focusing naturally on the production effort, the structure of the story and the special effects work (including some talk about the challenges of the 3D release.) There's some crossover with Gosnell's track, but with a group track it's got a different energy and the focus on writing and production changes the insights offered. Though your reviewer's view of the finished product wasn't changed, some appreciation for the thought that went into the script was certainly gained.

Some opportunities to play are offered with Smurf-O-Vision and The Smurfs Fantastic Adventure Game. The game is a side-scrolling platforming game played with your remote control, and though rather simplistic, it's cute, and will be fun for the movie's core audience to play. Smurf-O-Vision, which requires an Apple iOS device to fully utilize, seems far more interesting, but it doesn't quite work. This version of the film plays like Warner Brothers' Maximum Movie Mode, pulling out of the film to show interview clips and Smurf animations, though it's more about silly fun than info. When it works, the integration with your iPad or iPhone (via a free app) is pretty neat, as you can play with little activities that tie into the film (which syncs either wirelessly or manually.) Unfortunately, and to my daughter's severe disappointment, it frequently failed, either quitting out, losing sync or showing only on part of the device's screen. (You can play the activities separately from the film, but the impressive syncing aspect is lost, and you can watch the Smurf-O-Vision version without an app.)

Up first among the featurettes is "The Smurfs: Comic Book to the Big Screen" (8:15) which is mainly about the design of the Smurfs, focusing on how they were originally portrayed by their creator and how that would be adapted to CG animation. Like the writers' track, this extra goes a long way toward explaining how thoughtful the production was.

The next featurette, "Smurf Speak: Meet the Cast" (9:26) is a touch misleading, because it's really only about the cast who give voice to little blue creatures, as each of the actors behind the core Smurfs gets a bit of spotlight. Though it's a bit too proud for actors who have done far finer work elsewhere, and it ignores some of the big names who played smaller roles, it's interesting to hear the actors' thoughts on their characters and voices.

"Going Gargamel" spends nearly 10 minutes exploring the development of Azaria's portrayal of the evil wizard, which would be overkill if it wasn't Azaria, as in addition to hearing his thoughts about the voice, look and mannerisms of Gargamel, and see the make-up work done, you also hear from the director, producers, some actors and the writers on the film. It's followed by "Blue-pers," which may be the most disappointing extra ever, as it lasts a whopping 18 seconds (plus credits), showing two gags of Smurfs screwing up during filming. It nearly took as long to navigate and press play as it actually took to watch.

Five deleted or extended scenes are included as well, running nearly 8 minutes, though there's nothing here that really needed to be in the movie. Then there's the most literally-named extra, the "Happy Music Montage," which is essentially a 1:49 music video for a rather generic pop song, featuring clips from the film. It's ultimately skippable, unlike the five progression reels that follow, which can be watched separately or in one 9:14 chunk. These reels illustrate how the animators put together the look of the Smurfs in three dimensions, as well as how the animation was combined with the real-world footage. For anyone interested in animation, it's interesting stuff (though some info on how the Smurfs were combined with people would have been nice.)

Once you get past the Blu-Ray, you've got a DVD copy of the film, which has several of the Blu-Ray extras (minus the second screen experience, the deleted scenes and the cast featurette) but throws in an exclusive bonus, as it has "Find the Smurfs," a set-top game that's actually kind of fun. A take on the old shell game, you see Smurfs scrambling and then you have to find the right one hiding. Most set-top games are simplistic, but this one offers a genuine challenge.

On another DVD, you have a 20-minute short, The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol. This is a traditional re-telling of the old tale, swapping in Smurfs, as Grouchy stands in for Ebeneezer Scrooge. In a neat touch though, the short uses the film's CG style for bookends, swapping in a CG-enhanced version of the old cel-animation style when the ghosts (or Smurfs) arrive. It's entertaining enough and certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. It's telling that my 5-year-old prefers watching this disc far more than she wants to watch the main movie.

Also included is access to an UltraViolet copy of the film, for streaming or downloading, but be careful, as Sony has taken to putting your code to get that online copy on the back of a sticker on the plastic wrapping around the case when you buy the disc. If you're not paying attention to the very small print, you could easily throw this access code away.

The Bottom Line
The Smurfs' main issue is the reality that it's not sure what it wants to do, entertain the kids they are intended for, entertain the adults who remember them or straddle the line and do both, like so many great Pixar films do. So instead you have a film that alternates between entertaining and boring for various audiences, and even at its best (a stretch of a term) it's just OK, failing to capitalize on a cast brimming with audience goodwill because no clear direction is chosen. The Blu-Ray set, on the other hand, brings it in terms of sheer quantity, and audio and visual quality, though an entire third disc for a 20-minute Christmas special feels like overkill. Though the movie itself is purely a rental, the effort that went into the set raises the grade to a recommended, even if that's just that its recommended that you rent it.

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