For centuries, humankind has been vexed by one question above all others: Do Smurfs have sex? Some, such as noted scholar Donald Darko, say that Peyo’s iconic blue gnomes are asexual beings who lack reproductive organs altogether. Others contend that Smurfette — the only Smurf who identifies as female — is solely responsible for breeding future generations, although that argument obviously fails to account for the Smurfs that predated her. Canonically, it’s understood that a fleet of storks deliver baby Smurfs to Smurf Village whenever there’s a blue moon; that sounds a bit suspect, so far as these theories go, but it has the added benefit of being easily explained to young children.
I regret to inform you, dear reader, that “Smurfs: The Lost Village” does not put to bed the matter of how these tiny creatures procreate. On the contrary, this creatively vacant animated reboot — a perilous half-step down from the relatively inspired pair of awful live-action/computer-generated movies with which director Raja Gosnell last tried to revive this tired brand — replaces that unsolvable mystery with an even more urgent, more fundamental one. After millennia of wondering how Smurfs reproduce, it suddenly seems as if the more pressing question is why.
There’s always greed, of course, and the fact that Sony Pictures Animation desperately needs to forge its own identity in a market space that’s overrun with princesses, minions, and bosses who are also babies. “The Emoji Movie” (a real thing the company has slated for release this summer), now that’s a surefire winner, but Smurfs? Is the property’s brand recognition really strong enough to compensate for the creative limitations of a retrograde franchise in which every character is defined by a single quality, and yet still somehow completely indistinguishable? With 48 “Avatar” sequels on the way, does the the world really need another film about blue cartoon humanoids whose genitalia (or lack thereof) is far more interesting than anything that’s happening around them?
So lazy and witless that it makes it harder to understand how anyone could have ever enjoyed “The Smurfs,” “The Lost Village” begins on an appropriately ominous note, as one of those mischievous gremlins shoves the torch-carrying woman at the center of Columbia Pictures’ iconic logo and topples her right over. This sad wheeze of matinee entertainment doesn’t have either the guts or the gusto to live up to such grim symbolism, but those opening moments are a harsh reminder that the worst movies have a funny way of reviewing themselves.
From there, we launch right into the rare modern kids movie that offers absolutely nothing to anyone over the age of five. If you’re old enough to buy your own ticket, then you probably know the score: The Smurfs all live together in the colorful idyll of Smurf Village (imagine Tobias Fünke wandering around Pandora), where each of the charmless sprites is named after their defining trait. There’s Grouchy (Jake Johnson), who’s grouchy; Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), who’s clumsy; Brainy (Danny Pudi), who’s smart; and so on. Most of these Smurfs date back to the late ’50s, a more innocent time when Disney’s copyright lawyers were apparently asleep on the job. Hefty Smurf is voiced by Big Dick Richie from “Magic Mike,” which is a fun association. Table-Eating Smurf may not be voiced by anyone, as his mouth is always closed around the wooden table he’s trying to eat — that’s about as “irreverent” as this thing gets. We’re a long way from “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” folks.
The only Smurf who has more than a handful of speaking lines is not a Smurf at all, but rather Smurfette (Demi Lovato), who the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) fashioned out of clay in the hopes that she might lead him to Smurf Village and allow him to drain the little imps of their power. And while it’s true that each of the Smurfs is defined by his dominant trait, they all share one thing in common: They all want to Smurf Smurfette. They want to Smurf her good. With what? Who knows. It doesn’t even matter that she’s pretty much a living doll; every last one of these horny leprechauns is at least half-heartedly determined to be the Lars to her Real Girl.
There’s something faintly biblical to the idea of woman being invented as a means to destroy man, just as there’s something vaguely puritanical to the idea of man then taming woman with his magic and rendering her docile enough so that they might all live together in harmony. But Mike Pence shouldn’t be so quick to anoint the Smurfs as agents in the holy war against sin and perversion, because those conservative overtones don’t quite square with the self-evident moral of this story — Smurfette’s non-descriptive name ultimately means that she can be anything she wants — and the film’s second half begins with the discovery of an undiscovered village where all of the Smurfs are of the fairer sex (you can tell, because they have a spa).
Voiced by a murderer’s row of talent (including Julia Roberts) who each deliver their lines as though they’re reading them for the first time, the female tribe certainly injects some life to the movie, but doubling the size of the cast by adding ADHD Smurf (Ellie Kemper), Lesser Pop Star Smurf (Meghan Trainor) and Please Let This Be A Distraction From My Transphobic Walter Hill Movie Smurf (Michelle Rodriguez) doesn’t do much to round out the population. As “The Lost Village” dawdles into its mercifully brief second half, you may find yourself imagining a hyper-violent M. Night Shyamalan remake in which all of the Smurfs were smushed into a single body, but most contemporary animated characters are capable of more than a dozen emotions — hell, Kubo’s face could make 48 million different expressions.
Nevertheless, the single-purpose Smurfs don’t have to be such a kiss of death (they’re reasonably well time-tested, after all) but “The Lost Village” doesn’t have the creative spark required to make the most of their traits. Alternating between laziness and desperation until both forces collide in the film’s climactic Meghan Trainor sing-along (you fools, Demi Lovato was right there), the Smurfs’ latest outing is stuck between the psychedelic trippiness of “Trolls” and the manic energy of “The LEGO Movie,” ironically lacking the sense of self required to be its own thing.
‘Director Kelly Asbury (“Gnomeo & Juliet”) seldom displays enough visual wit to justify why this movie isn’t a free Saturday morning cartoon, while screenwriters Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon seem resigned to their despair — when one early beat finds Depressed Smurf telling Therapist Smurf that he “feels blue,” it’s almost as if the movie is telling parents: “We know you’re there, and we’re very sorry about the next 80 minutes of your lives. Also, the Meghan Trainor thing was decided way above our pay grade, so please don’t hold that against us.”
Still, it’s important to note that “The Lost Village” may be awful, but it’s not malicious. It doesn’t flaunt its mediocrity or celebrate its ugliness — it isn’t “Sing.” Indeed, the film’s lack of effort may be its saving grace (well, the lack of effort and the adorable insect characters), as it’s too content with its disposability to leave much of an impression. There’s a palpable difference between a movie that lowers the bar, and a movie that takes advantage of the fact that someone has already set it low enough for a Smurf to step over it. That’s fine for now, but it’s hard to imagine kids asking their parents if their might be a Sequel Smurf. It’s sad that we may never learn if Smurfs have sex, but it’s downright tragic that future generations may not even care.
“Smurfs: The Lost Village” opens in theaters on Friday, April 7.