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5 things Smurfs: The Lost Village accomplishes, for better or worse

The exhausting reboot diversifies its universe, fries kids’ synapses, and a few other things along the way.

Brainy, Clumsy, and Brawny Smurf with Smurfette in Smurfs: The Lost Village
Brainy, Clumsy, and Brawny Smurf with Smurfette in Smurfs: The Lost Village
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Smurfs: The Lost Village is an overlong, exhausting, but remarkably gender-balanced feature-length animated reboot starring the little blue characters who first entered public consciousness in 1958, when the Belgian comics artist Peyo created them. Since then, they’ve been the subject of comic books, animated TV series, films, and a host of merchandising. And now they’re all set for their close-up in a new era.

To its credit, Smurfs: The Lost Village smartly corrects a silly flaw that’s persisted throughout its history: the almost total lack of female characters, except a few (notably Smurfette) who were created by the evil wizard Gargamel from dark matter and then made good by the magic of Papa Smurf. That played just fine in earlier Smurf incarnations, but 2017 isn’t a great time to have a franchise with a dearth of lady characters — especially if you want to sell Smurf stuff to kids of all genders.

Smurfs: The Lost Village navigates its efforts toward gender parity rather deftly, opening a whole new realm of possibilities for the Smurfs. But that laudable expansion doesn’t erase the fact that The Lost Village is not a good movie, which is nothing short of a crime in an era when movies for children are often just as rich and varied as those for adults.

Which raises the question: What exactly is Smurfs: The Lost Village good for? Why does it even exist? Here are five things the film does manage to pull off, for better or worse.

Exploding small children’s cognitive synapses

Everything about The Lost Village’s eyeball-searing visuals is cranked to 11, from the Smurfs’ blue flesh to the bright, exploding coloration of their village and the Forbidden Forest into which they venture. It’s ... a lot.

Why are they in a Forbidden Forest? Well, early on, a group of Smurfs sneak into the lair of Gargamel (Rainn Wilson), which he shares with his faithful, annoyed cat Azrael (incidentally, named for the angel of death), to save the kidnapped Smurfette. While making their escape, the Smurfs discover that Gargamel has designs on a secret and previously unbeknownst-to-them village of Smurfs. He wants to kidnap them all, enacting a broad, devastating Smurfocide for the purpose of making extra-potent potions that will render him the most powerful wizard in the world.

An image from Smurfs: The Lost Village
Feast your eyes, and try not to get sugar poisoning.

Our more familiar Smurfs, ruled by Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin), didn’t even know this village existed. But Smurfette (Demi Lovato), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), and Brainy (Danny Pudi), sneak out of town against Papa’s wishes and make it their mission to find and warn the residents of this lost village — which means venturing into the Forbidden Forest.

When they finally get into the forest, Smurfette is overcome, finally turning to the trio and exclaiming, “Wow!” before she promptly gets snapped up by a semi-carnivorous yellow flower.

That’s more or less how it feels to watch The Lost Village: Everything looks amazing, to the extent that it starts to feel like an assault on the senses. Rainbows! Brightly colored flowers! Glowing rabbits! Multicolored waterfalls and rushing rivers! To make matters even zanier, the film is shot for 3D, which means the colors aren’t just metaphorically popping out at you but actually jumping off the screen.

This is probably marvelous for distracting your 4-year-old (and indeed, the little kids in the room at my screening squealed throughout). But at just under an hour and a half, The Lost Village is a nonstop Technicolor bonanza, and I can’t imagine that repeated viewings wouldn’t overstimulate young synapses, even when transferred to tablets and minivan screens to keep little ones distracted. Which might be the point.

Recolonizing a familiar universe with new (female) characters

Bringing women into previously male-dominated franchises — like Marvel’s or, famously and explosively, last summer’s Ghostbusters — has its hazards. Fans blow up, angry to see their favorite worlds changed to make them more inclusive.

Smurfs: The Lost Village circumvents some of the problems those franchises run into by being a side reboot, combining the same characters and same villain with a whole new cast of characters who have, presumably, been out there since the beginning. (Pointedly, the tagline for the film is “They were never alone.”)

We still have Papa Smurf and all the boy Smurfs. But we also have Smurfjade and Smurfwillow and Smurfblossom and Smurfstorm, and like the boy Smurfs, they all have distinctive personalities. Some are tough. Some are bouncy. Some like to sing. Some enjoy riding horse-like dragon bugs.

Smurfs: The Lost Village
Smurfs: The Lost Village.

Most importantly, none of these lady Smurfs suffer from what Smurfette and a couple of companions in the past have experienced: the stigma of knowing they are actually the product of the evil wizard, made from dark matter, and initially intended to harm the other Smurfs. That was never a tremendous lesson to hand off to girls watching the little blue people — that they are different and inherently bad. Instead, the lost village Smurfs are just regular Smurfs, with distinct (if one-note) personalities. And it’s strongly suggested that all the Smurfs will now live in harmony together.

That’s a thoroughly modern suggestion, sure, but a good move from a storytelling perspective — there are just more stories to tell in a fantasy universe world that’s more diverse — and it’s a merchandising coup, too.

Selling a lot of Smurf stuff

Because, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff for sale tied to Smurfs: The Lost Village. There are books — a novelization, a ready-to-read guide to the village, and a storybook. There’s a $45 book about making the film. There’s a dress-up magnet kit. There’s a 2018 wall calendar (with the last four months of 2017 included). There’s a magic ink kit (mess-free markers!) and a look-and-find book and Pez dispensers and a puzzle. There are figurines (so many figurines) and several play sets and many, many, many stuffed toys, some of which talk. There’s probably more I missed.

Oh, and there’s the inevitable Happy Meal.

Children’s movies selling merchandise is a practice as old as Papa Smurf himself, a time-honored tradition in America and one I never expect to see go away. But it is worth saying that back in my day (she says, wagging her finger oldly), one usually still got the feeling that the film came first and the merchandise afterward.

Papa Smurf is displeased.
Papa Smurf is displeased.

Now that’s all changed. Whether it’s due to personal expectations or the movie itself, I can’t say, but watching The Lost Village I caught myself wondering frequently whether the character I just saw was going to be cast in plastic or plush and available at Toys R Us. I was frankly shocked to discover that a cool little selfie-taking ladybug camera/printer the Smurfs tote around in the film is not, as far as I can tell, on the market in our universe. Maybe next time around.

Reminding you how much you miss Danny Pudi in Community

Pudi voices Brainy Smurf, a perfect pairing for the actor who played the marvelously weird Abed on Community and, save for bit parts here and there, didn’t show up much until NBC’s Powerless premiered in February.

Brainy Smurf is a great part for him, and one that’s characteristic of the film’s generally smart casting, starting with Patinkin as Papa Smurf and extending through stunt casting (Jake Johnson as Grumpy Smurf, Tituss Burgess as Vanity Smurf, Gordon Ramsay as Baker Smurf) and strokes of genius (the apex of which is Julia Roberts as Smurfblossom, Papa Smurf’s female counterpart). The lost village is populated by familiar female voices — Ellie Kemper, pop singer Meghan Trainor, Modern Family’s Ariel Winter — and the overall effect is of being among friends.

But it’s Pudi I miss most, and hearing his voice as a brainiac Smurf who’s deeply attached to his guidebook reminded me that even with the Powerless stint, his talent is, as yet, mostly untapped. Hollywood, get on that.

Rebooting the Smurfs franchise in anticipation of (hopefully) a streaming cartoon

It’s extremely obvious that Smurfs: The Lost Village exists to create a base for a new Smurfs universe that’s more or less the same as the old one, except with more girls — and, presumably, more little girls in the audience too.

Yet The Lost Village seems far more suited to spawn a streaming cartoon franchise of the kind my 5-year-old niece watches on Netflix than a bunch of feature-length sequels.

The eye-popping visuals, funny one-liners, and randomly placed pop ballads of The Lost Village are enjoyable at first, but they quickly start to pull in diminishing returns. Nobody really cares how the village got lost. Nobody really wonders how their tribes got separated. There’s no backstory, no mythology, nothing at stake except the increasingly impotent threat of Gargamel. The plot of The Lost Village is more or less The Lord of the Rings, but instead of saving Hobbiton from the armies of Mordor, our heroes’ journey is not all that perilous, full of weird and funnish little set pieces, and laden with montages (presumably to extend the runtime), and concludes with a big dance party to the new Meghan Trainor song (titled “I’m a Lady”).

All this could have happened in 22 minutes, but in their infinite wisdom, the suits at Sony Entertainment decided to spring for the feature-length film.

Smurfette, Brainy, Clumsy, and Brawny are taken aback.
Smurfette, Brainy, Clumsy, and Brawny are taken aback.

And so be it. Smurfs: The Lost Village is utterly diverting and lacking in substance, which is hard to excuse when movies like Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings and Finding Dory and The Lego Batman Movie and even, frankly, The Boss Baby are being released into theaters at a good clip. Just because it’s for kids doesn’t mean it has to be dumbed down.

But hey: It’s shiny and colorful, it introduces a bunch of girls into the Smurf universe, and the voice actors are fun. The best thing that could come from it is a more diverse animated world, and maybe some more work for Danny Pudi. And I guess, if I have to, I can live with that.

Smurfs: The Lost Village opens in theaters on April 7.

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