Blue is the blandest colour. Smurfs: The Lost Village, a reboot of the franchise based on the Belgian cartoonist Peyo’s eminently marketable characters, the blue-bodied, four-fingered Smurfs, is a product of its environment. It possesses a reasonably appealing combination of Tumblr-friendly millennial sass as well as kid-friendly slapstick moments.
There’s a problem, though: none of it sticks. The Smurf universe is expanded this time, not into a live-action world (as in the first film), but within its own lush, animated environment. The backstory is presented to us as a prologue to an episode of a TV series, minus the words ‘Previously on…”.
The world of the Smurfs is Blytonesque in its asexuality, but quite the opposite when it comes to political correctness (it has, after all, both the leads from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — Ellie Kemper and Titus Burgess — amongst its voice cast).
The story, therefore, revolves around the only female Smurf, known as Smurfette (Demi Lovato), a character who has been discussed by many feminists in recent decades for being problematic.
A 1991 New York magazine essay titled The Smurfette Principle uses Smurfette as an example to criticise depictions of kids in pop culture as “a group of male budies… accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined”. In fact, that’s what the point of the entire film is: to find out what she stands for. The more accurate answer would be ‘stereotypical femininity’, but that’s okay, given what the movie sets out to do.
It turns out there’s another Smurf village, one filled with only its women. Smurfette, therefore, becomes the bridge between the two, even though she rudely interrupts a romantic moment between Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) and Smurf Willow (Julia Roberts).
The nomenclature for each gender tells you something — the men are named after their dominant traits, such as the strong and vain Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello) or the somewhat insecure Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi), or professions, such as Baker Smurf (Gordon Ramsay); the women, in contrast, have suffixed names that evoke elements of nature, such as the hilariously awkward Smurf Blossom (Kemper) or the always suspicious and combative Smurf Storm (Michelle Rodriguez). Uhh, doesn’t that kinda defeat the purpose?
Problematic character choices aside, the film, written by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon, doesn’t even bother to be more than paint-by-numbers summer draw. Smurfette stays true to all that the character stands for, from being the Eve-like troublemaker who gets the innocent boys into trouble as well, to the self-sacrificial heroine upon whom the story’s emotional core is based.
There are a few quips and exchanges that may tickle hapless adults accompanying children and elicit chuckles, but there are many more entire sequences, such as a dull montage set to Eiffel 65’s late ‘90s dance anthem ‘Blue’.
The score, by Christopher Lennertz, is standard-issue, as is the animation (and the 3D quite unnecessary). Director Kelly Asbury seems to have assembled a film by carefully studying the lower tier of American animated fare, whose films routinely sacrifice good writing to cutesiness.
The Smurfs: The Lost Village is, in fact, emblematic of a prevalent misconception, where it is assumed that children, anywhere in the world, over the ages like the same things: bright colours, cute characters, and easy, mostly slapstick humour. Give today’s kids more credit than that.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)