*** out of ****
(for some mild action and rude humor)
Released: April 7, 2017
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: Kelly Asbury
Starring: Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Joe Manganiello, Jack McBrayer, Danny Pudi, Mandy Patinkin (and other voices I’d rather not spoil)
Comedy. Adventure. Cuteness. And heart.
All that, plus an inspiring dose of Girl Power that expands both the history and future of this cuddly mythology.
The third time’s the charm for Sony Pictures Animation as they finally get their Smurf franchise right. After two embarrassing animation/live-action hybrids, each driven by marketing strategies rather than creative ones, the third film reboots the property back into a fully animated world, one where “blue humor” is kid-friendly and parent approved. This is exactly the kind of fun, safe, and hugely entertaining movie that moms, dads, and kids hope for.
Smurfs: The Lost Village embraces the charming spirit that made Peyo’s singular creations a phenomenon for the Gen-X generation. It enthusiastically repurposes the world into a vibrant, colorful spectacle for the 3D animation age. There are some really cool sights to see here. It also has the smarts to build on its legacy rather than coast on it, with a worthwhile and heartwarming focus on Smurfette – the only girl in all of Smurf village.
Smurfette stands out (and alone) for two reasons: one, she’s the only girl, and two, she’s the only Smurf whose name defines her by her biology, not her skill, strength, quirk, or passion. The result is a two-fold identity crisis that, as we come to discover, is rooted in an intriguing origin story that gives Smurfette an unexpectedly compelling layer.
Some clever comedy is mined early on as Smurfette (Demi Lovato takes over for Katy Perry) tries on other Smurf personalities for size to see if any fit; her abject failure at being grumpy is hilarious and adorable. A mysterious presence just outside of Smurf village, however, catches Smubrfette’s attention. It leads to a discovery that sends her on a journey into the Forbidden Forest, where she may find the answers she’s looking for (along with a whole host of new characters made fun by great star-driven voice performances).
Fellow Smurfs Brainy, Hefty, and Clumsy join Smurfette for the adventure – and dance! -but their support doesn’t compromise her agency (that seems to be the appropriate term du jour). If anything, the egalitarianism between the four is a healthy and teachable dynamic, particularly as they must contend with the evil Gargamel (voiced with maniacal giddiness by an unrecognizable Rainn Wilson). He has schemes to sap the Smurfs of their magic and make himself the most powerful wizard of all time. In other words, he’s a fitting comic relief obstacle that also helps serve as a catalyst for the story’s core themes.
And while those themes revolve primarily around Smurfette, kids of both genders can identify with them, particularly those who feel marginalized or on the outside. It’s about overcoming the fear that people may judge you based on where you come from, not on what you strive to be, and if people will try to define you that way for the rest of your life.
Smurfs: The Lost Village is written and directed by women (Kelly Asbury at the helm, with a script by Stacey Harmon and Pamela Ribon), and their perspective makes this material resonate much more personally, and truthfully. It all transcends a checklist of required talking points that are sanctioned by contemporary gender politics. The audience isn’t preached at; kids are given a parable that evokes understanding and empathy, and the final resolution of how Smurfette discovers and defines her identity is, well, perfect.
As an animated adventure, Smurfs: The Lost Village is a kaleidoscope of visual wonder, and plenty of action-based comic humor to make this a thrill for girls and boys alike. The Forbidden Forest is as dazzling and alive as Avatar‘s Pandora, with designs and creations that pop with color, creativity, and dream-like imagination. The Smurfs themselves are also a distinct improvement from the previous two films, which awkwardly configured the Smurfs with a weird blend of their cartoonish roots and a too-real tactile texture. Here, they’re truer, cuter 3D versions of their original 2D selves.
Honestly, this movie does more than it needs to (a sure sign of storytellers with a specific vision and something to say), leading up to a final stretch that I actually couldn’t predict. It’s capped by an unexpected emotional peak that, in the packed preview audience I attended, adults and kids alike were audibly moved, openly responding with gasps and sniffles.
Sight unseen, it’s natural to ask yourself (with an eye roll), “Do we really need another one of these?” But with Smurfs: The Lost Village, Sony Pictures Animation has joyously answered that question in the smurfy affirmative. This re-start from scratch validates its existence (and hopefully more to come) by enriching its story, its characters, and its world in a way that inspires the best in ours.