I quite enjoyed the original Smurf movie. Sure, it was saccharine sweet, predictable by-the-numbers family entertainment but I thought it was a fair attempt to reintroduce The Smurfs to a contemporary audience following a significant absence from the public consciousness. The film was appealingly cast and the whole unlikely venture succeeded for me through the sincerity of Hank Azaria’s unrestrained turn as the evil but bumbling Gargamel.
“The Smurfs 2”, unfortunately, is lazy sequel making by-the-numbers. Not sure what exactly drove the $500million gross? Bring the whole cast back, never mind that there’s no story to tell for Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays as the Winslows. I imagine the conversations went something like this:
“We want a sure fire hit. Make sure we’ve got NPH locked down. See if we can get what’s-her-name back too. Oh wait; they had a kid at the end of the first one, didn’t they? Call down to central casting and get a cute four year old. No, we don’t need him to say anything much, he’ll be completely superfluous to the story. Hang on – we also resolved Patrick’s neurotic worries about his job and becoming a Dad in the last one. I know, let’s ret-con his backstory to give him a deadbeat Dad and a misunderstood stepfather; then get him all torn up about that. And we’ll bring the stepdad into the film too, Brendan Gleeson owes me a huge favour. Okay, we’ve got Gargamel and the cat, what can we get them to do? Got it! The same damn plan they had the last time. Cool. Just need some Smurfs and we got ourselves a movie. Okay, we have to have Papa and probably Smurfette. But let’s change up the others, because we sold all the toys of the first ones so let’s crank out some new ones. No, their traits don’t need to be relevant to the story at all. Okay. Here’s $100million dollars – go shoot this thing. Not, not in New York, only 25% of the gross came from the US last time. Shoot it somewhere in Europe. They love the little blue f***kers over there. Where’s that place with the Eiffel Pyramid? Spain? Shoot it there.”
Don’t get me wrong, the cast try their best, but the whole thing feels kind of flat. Azaria’s Gargamel lacks the zip and energy that worked so well in the first one, whereas the rest of the human cast seem just as baffled by the absence of motivation for their characters as the rest of us. But they spent $100million to make this, and that’s a lot of cash to not be overly concerned about getting value for money.
I love it when a TV series is upscaled to the big screen and the makers get “it”. They know that, to make a TV show really translate to the cinema, you need to do things that you weren’t able to do on your TV budget, or you have to go big in other ways, be it plot, character or event. This is why the original Star Trek movies worked so well and the Next Generation movies didn’t. Better and cheaper TV effects have made this leap harder. The Next Generation movies always felt like extended episodes of the TV series they spawned, and obsessively didn’t change anything significant. The original Star Trek movies confronted the fact the cast were older, played with it and made it integral to the plot. They also killed off two of the main characters in shocking twists (which they later reversed in different ways).
But cinema is also littered with the duds of failed TV to cinema attempts: “Sex And The City”, “The Saint”, “The A Team”, “Bewitched”, “Miami Vice”, “The Simpsons Movie”, “The X Files”. I’m not saying they were necessarily bad movies (okay, I am saying “The Simpsons Movie” is a bad movie) but they fail creatively in taking their subjects to a different level. Sometimes the level they’re at is fine, so stay on TV. Sometimes, the chemistry and spark that make it work can’t be sustained over longer than your usual 30 minute to 45 minute episode length, so stay on TV. Sometimes the kind of repetitive plotting you have in a TV show, especially a kids cartoon, where the same villain comes back week after week to try the same thing will be horribly exposed on the big screen, so stay on TV.
I know, “The Smurfs 2” is a ‘family’ movie, specifically designed to give you something to do with the kids during the long summer holidays, especially if it rains. And it’s perfectly adequate if that’s all you want. But my beef with it is that it could have been something more. I think the first film did a pretty impressive job of acknowledging what everyone remembered from the cartoon and then expanding the Smurfs into a wider fictional world. Imagine, if you will, a braver creative choice of taking them off into a whole new adventure which leaves behind the constant treadmill of Gargamel’s quest for Smurf essence and gives them a new threat or adventure to deal with. Just, you know, step it up to another level – reach for something better and more interesting. Have them meet new people, not drag back the same people from the first one because…um, well, just because. We could have finally had the Smurf movie that “Avatar” was trying to be!
Maybe it’s not too late. There’s a “Smurfs 3” in the works already, so perhaps for the threequel they’ll take a creative chance. I somehow doubt it, though…
PS: My seven year old son (let’s call him The Mertmas) who I took to see it, loved it. He sat entranced, laughed at the antics of both the Smurfs and the humans and was thrilled by the finale. He also decided he was Gargamel and called me “Papa” for the rest of the day. As far as he’s concerned, this was probably a good 7/10.