2011 marks the 30th year since “The Smurfs” debuted on North American television as a Saturday morning cartoon, which means that the original audience for those little blue creatures (and collectible figures) is now in their mid 30s to early 40s.
Nostalgia is a powerful force, and you can bet that “The Smurfs” was such a hit in theaters and, according to a recent release from the Digital Entertainment Group, one of the titles on Blu-ray that’s giving the format a boost this holiday season primarily because that original audience wanted to share the experience with their own children. A part of me wonders if those are the only two groups who will find this film unconditionally fun to watch.
“The Smurfs” debuted on TV the same year as Ronald Reagan took office, when life was simpler–a bipolar world made up of two superpowers, one of which was dubbed “evil” by the new president. That same sense of innocence and simplicity characterized “The Smurfs,” a population of adorable blue creatures tiny as hobbits who were named according to their occupations or personalities, with Papa Smurf the wise leader of them all. Their idyllic existence was marred only by tiny ‘50s sitcom-style problems and an evil wizard named Gargamel, whose “henchman” was his cat.
Like any PG-rated movie these days, “The Smurfs” will have family appeal because there are so few clean-cut options available. But because it stays so close to the original concept and tone (even down to the La la la la la la Smurf song and their habit of using “smurf” as an all-purpose verb) the age range it will “speak” to is probably 3 through 8 . . . and, of course, the parents who are reliving their own childhoods again. The adults may well identify with Patrick and Grace Winslow (Jayma Mays, from “Glee,” and Neil Patrick Harris, from “How I Met Your Mother”), the New York City couple whose lives are turned topsy-smurfy when little blue creatures enter their world through a portal.
Unlike “Enchanted,” which also saw cartoon characters enter New York City through a portal, the Smurfs are still their CGI-animated selves in both worlds, pursued in both worlds by a live-action Gargamel (Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons”) and his live-action (but CGI enhanced) cat. It’s a successful blending of animation and live action that frankly would be getting a lot more praise from me if the filmmakers hadn’t basically taken the same concept as “Enchanted” and put a Blue Little Man Group spin on it.
Even so, there are a few fun moments for those who aren’t card-carrying members of the target audience. Azaria is a delight as Gargamel, though at times you’d swear he slips into his Moe voice. Mays and Harris play well off each other and are also quite good at green screen acting. And TV fans will delight in seeing Tim Gunn (“Project Runway”) and Sofia Vergara (“Modern Family”) in small roles.
The plot? It’s about as retro as the TV series, with Gargamel chasing the Smurfs out of their village, then following them into the world of humans. He tries to “get” them, whatever that means, while they try to find a way to return to their village, endearing themselves to an expectant couple in the process. Really, it’s no more complicated than an old game of Frogger–another bit of pop culture that debuted in 1981. But the animation and the acting (reaction shots especially) make it more interesting, along with some “Brady Bunch” self-awareness and self-deprecating humor. There’s not enough of the latter, if you ask me. Then again, “The Smurfs” is a cute film . . . if cute’s your thing.
“The Smurfs” is an eye-candy film that’s bursting with visual flavor. Colors are so richly hued that they seem full of texture as well, and the CGI blue people are surprisingly well rendered, even during special effects sequences. Black levels are perfect, edge delineation is strong, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is solid, producing zero in the way of compression issues and flaws. It’s beautiful to watch, and partly that’s why this film appeals. “The Smurfs” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is an industry-standard DTS-HD MA 5.1 in English or French (Canadian), with additional audio options listed as Spanish, Chinese Mandarin, Chinese Putonghua, Chinese Cantonese, Korean, or Thai Dolby Digital 5.1, with an English audio descriptive track in 2.0. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, Spanish, Chinese (all three), Korean, and Thai. Clarity and timbre are superb, and while I hesitate to call it an immersive soundtrack because there’s mostly a lot of background music and dialogue, the audio is still pretty impressive.
This is the 3-Disc Holiday Blu-ray, which includes a DVD and an UltraViolet Digital Version that you can use to build your virtual library, though, since it’s not available yet on the Sony site, a part of me wonders about future availability with this format. So if a site or signal is down, does that mean you can’t access a film in your UltraViolet collection? I’m just wondering about any limitations of this new method of blending digital storage with delivery of digital copies. I’ve long had the same thoughts about BD-Live features, which, up until this point, haven’t been worth the trouble to access them.
As for the bonus features that are actually here, there’s a third disc that has “The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol,” an all-new mini-movie that’s kind of fun. You could put together quite the film festival just collecting all the cartoon versions of the Dickens’ tale.
Meanwhile, director Raja Gosnell is featured on a better-than-average commentary in which he delivers some fascinating remarks about the blending of CGI and live-action filmmaking. A second track featuring writers J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn teaming with producer Jordan Kerner and visual effects supervisor Richard Hoover is also worth listening to because of the TV-to-movie discussion and a different (and more technical) take on the process.
The remaining bonus features are under 10 minutes each. A fun retrospective is “The Smurfs: Comic Book to the Big Screen,” while cast features are split in two: “Smurf Speak: Meet the Cast” and “Going Gargamel.” Kids will like a three-level “The Smurfs Fantastic Adventure Game,” in which they use their TV remotes to help Clumsy save Papa Smurf, and fans will appreciate five deleted/extended scenes that collectively run just under eight minutes. Techies get “Progression Reels,” a nine-minute look at the CG elements (especially lighting and visual effects). Finally, there’s a gag reel so brief that if you sneeze you’ll miss it, and a music montage that feels like a fan mash-up.
Fans of BD-Live can dial up other bonus features, and as if a generation of easily bored and distracted people can’t find enjoyment just watching a film, now there’s “Smurf-O-Vision Second Screen Experience” for the fidgeters to “interact with the Smurfs as they take over your TV & iPad, iPhone or iTouch while you watch the movie.
Cute-lovers and the target audience (people who grew up watching “The Smurfs” on TV and a new generation of kids ages 3-8) will probably rate this a 7 out of 10, while the rest of us would put it in the 5-6 range. I’m going with a 6 because it’s surprisingly well put together, despite its two-dimensional (pun intended) plot. If it wasn’t geared toward small children and their nostalgic parents, it would easily merit a 7 because of the technical wizardry.