Smurfs: The Lost Village

At best, Smurfs: The Lost Village is passably diverting entertainment.  At worst, it’s about a decade out of date.

Despite the fact that the first of them was released the same year as Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, the live-action/CGI Smurfs movies from the first half of this decade always felt like relics of a bygone age.  Specifically, the age of the early-to-mid-2000s when the live-action/CGI hybrid family movie was at its most prolific and most grating.  An attempt by a bunch of very desperate executives to upgrade old animated properties into hip new incarnations for a more modern generation that ended up gestating such “treasures” as Garfield: The Movie (and its sequel), Alvin and the Chipmunks (and its sequels), Scooby-Doo (and its sequel), before trailing off with 2010’s Yogi Bear (thankfully no sequels) and Illumination’s attempt to craft something like that from scratch, Hop.  Sure, the first of these two Smurfs films earned the requisite critical-scorn-box-office-bounty that came with entries into this genre, but its sequel, just two years later, failed to recapture that box office success and indicated just how out-of-time its very existence and premise ultimately were.

So it makes sense for Sony to go back to the drawing board and start again from scratch, ditching the dated live-action/CGI real-world conceit in favour of an evergreen animated movie.  It’s an idea that bodes some semblance of promise on paper.  Sony Pictures Animation, whilst yet to put together a home-run narratively by themselves, have already crafted an elastic, distinctive animation style of their own, and the freedom of animation allows them to properly realise the world of the Smurfs in a way that won’t need to fall back on cringe-y pop culture references every few seconds, instead going back to the spirit of the original comics and cartoons.  That’s how it looks on paper.  In practice, what the creators of Smurfs: The Lost Kingdom have actually done is merely swap out one dated mid-00s family movie template (the live-action/CGI hybrid) for another (the budget animated DreamWorks rip-off).

I’m talking the whole shebang, folks.  An ill-fitting Pop song soundtrack of an extreme on-the-nose nature that montages sequences that would have been far better without their presence?  The Lost Village has one of those, alright, and also really is lazy enough to set a late-film montage to, what else, Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” like it’s still 2000.  Stunt casting side characters with big name celebrities who bring nothing to the role other than flat, grating, or distracting performances?  Without delving into spoilers, the titular Lost Village brings a whole butt-load of those with it, including one person playing the most obvious role ever and another having their own terrible songs on the soundtrack.  Desperate stabs at relevance by namechecking things and slang that were “in” when the film was first put into production 3 years ago?  That’s how we now have the immensely disappointing sight of an animated Smurfs movie that still, somehow, finds a way to squeeze in selfie jokes and an entire sidekick whose plot-related function is to be the insect equivalent of a smartphone.

It’s all so tired and cookie-cutter, which is somewhat ironic given how loud and colourful and busy the film is.  The Lost Village is clearly aiming to court the youngest audiences possible, and that honestly wouldn’t be much of a problem if only the film would get out of its own goddamn way more often and stop trying so very hard to throw a bone to the parents that have been dragged along, or to prove how totally Now this new iteration of Smurfs is.  This is why the times when the film is given over to Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) and his cat Azrael (Frank Welker) are by far and away the best, because the film is able to stop trying so damn hard and relax into a tried-and-tested but still humorous comedy dynamic (the ineffectual villainous narcissist and his vastly more capable sidekick that he has no respect for).  I could even feel the film relaxing during these scenes, since even the scenes with the Smurf Gang – Smurfette (Demi Lovato), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Brainy (Danny Pudi), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer turned up to 14 at all times) – that don’t derail themselves with pop culture references become exhausting through sheer volume.  Literally, to be clear, I can count on one hand the total amount of minutes where somebody is not screaming for “comedic effect.”

Even the animation comes with drawbacks.  Technically, the work that Sony Pictures Animation have put into Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania movies and being the outsourced studio for Warner Bros. Storks pays some good dividends here on Smurfs.  The art style is appropriately bright and simple, with a curved elastic feel to much of the world and its characters, and their now-trademark 3D squash-and-stretch character animations provide the film’s most consistent source of chuckles.  Where director Kelly Asbury missteps, however, is in the boarding department.  The Lost Village is one suffocatingly-shot film, with what feels like half of the film being shot in either close-ups or extreme-close-ups.  Entire scenes go by where characters only talk to each other in close-ups of varying degrees, almost always with at least one of its participants being located off-screen, and the effect is almost claustrophobic-inducing.  It can’t even be passed off as intentionally trying to demonstrate how small the Smurfs are in relation to the rest of their world, because exactly how small or big they are supposed to be changes frequently, sometimes from shot to shot.

Watching The Lost Village, I became more fixated on this the longer it ran for two reasons.  The first being that the rest of the film is so generic and just… there that I had to work to find something interesting in it.  The second was because I was trying to place the exact movie that The Lost Village was reminding me of, with its suffocating boarding, desperate attempts to appear relevant to modern audiences, and constant invocation of LOUD NOISES and Epic Chases because Modern Kids Animation.  And as the film reached the mandatory “ALL IS LOST” moment – with its unwanted cousin, The Disney Death, close behind – I managed to nail down exactly what film I was being reminded of: the 2005 CGI film version of The Magic Roundabout.  Maybe not to the exact same degree, since The Lost Village is not as much of a full-on betrayal of everything the property originally stood for as the ‘05 Roundabout was, but the similarities are hard to ignore.  Same excessively tight boarding, same poor attitude to pacing, same sense of humour, many of the same mistakes…  Like I said, The Smurfs have ultimately traded in one overdone outdated family movie setup for another.

Honestly, the sole interesting thing about The Lost Village is almost definitely unintentional.  See, the plot involves Smurfette, who you may recall was made from clay by Gargamel with the purpose of leading him to the Smurfs only to be turned good by Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin who is distracting but does technically fit the role suitably), feeling lost as to her place in the world.  She doesn’t have a narrowly defined purpose like the other, all-male Smurfs, and she is ostracised from most of their society, and even accidentally Other-d by her friends from time to time, due to her not being “a real Smurf.”  Whilst writers Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon are clearly trying to tackle the implications of the “sole girl in a man’s world” dynamic of The Smurfs up to this point – reinforced by the reveal of The Lost Village itself, which has already been spoiled by the marketing and is thuddingly easy to guess, but I still won’t spoil it out of courtesy – I couldn’t help but read this as subtext for trans folks trying to find acceptance in a cis  society.  Particularly since the fact of her creation, her not being “a real Smurf” as the others constantly see her, ends up stopping her from finding acceptance even in The Lost Village.  The film, obviously, doesn’t seem to be aware of this subtext… or, at least, I hope it’s not, because otherwise that would make its resolution wildly offensive on that subtextual level.

That whole last paragraph is probably the most damning thing that I could say about Smurfs: The Lost Village, ultimately: that the most interesting thing about it came from unintentional subtext that almost definitely wasn’t supposed to be there and that most other viewers won’t pick up on.  Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this new Smurfs, especially since it’s pitching its tent squarely on the youngest of audience groups, and it’s serviceable entertainment if you have the luxury of having a hearing aid that you can turn way down in order to save yourself the guaranteed headache.  The problem, though, is just that.  This is, at best, serviceable entertainment, Meghan Trainor songs aside.  If this were released a decade ago, it would still have only been, at best, serviceable entertainment.  In 2017, there are far too many better, funnier, and far more relevant animated options out there that one can spend time with instead of watching Smurfs: The Lost Village, and none of those will re-expose you to Eiffel 65.

Callum Petch can’t give you his soul, cos we’re never alone.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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