The Smurf Hits the Fan
I’ve been giving this some serious thought for some time now, and I believe I may have figured out who is the intended audience for The Smurfs:
An incontinent semi-slacker thirtysomething dude who is insecure in his high-powered career and worried about his impending fatherhood.
It’s the only way to explain the apparently bizarre contradictions of this movie, which would otherwise appear to be a mess suitable for no one at all.
Or it could be that the intended audience is a diaper-wearing toddler struggling so fiercely with toilet training that it is impacting his confidence in his future prospects, from career to parenthood.
This is another viable option.
Whatever the case, the wisdom of targeting a film at such a small potential audience is the genius of The Smurfs, indicating its disdain of any possible commercial success in favor of an arthouse exploration of an oddball psyche.
Certainly, incontinence — as the result of either as-yet untrained bowels or a terrible adult affliction — is presumed to be a major concern for the viewer here. Screenwriters J. David Stem and David N. Weiss (who as a team created the insouciant wit of Daddy Day Camp and Are We There Yet?), in concert with Jay Scherick and David Ronn (who as a team whipped up the frothy delights of Zookeeper and Norbit), working from the original cartoons of Peyo, of course, adroitly weave a tapestry of humor derived from the mirroring motifs of things ending up in the potty that aren’t supposed to be in the potty — a tiny blue plop of a Smurf falls into a toilet; the stinking retch of an evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria: Hop, Love and Other Drugs) mistakes a porta-john for a magic laboratory — and things not ending up in the potty that should be there, as with Gargamel’s penchant for public urination. We may presume from the way these sequences are presented that the viewer is hoped to have a good attitude toward his incontinence… or perhaps The Smurfs is intended to cheer the self-shitting audience member that there is nothing to be overly concerned about in these matters, and that he should just lighten up about it. Whatever the case, the delving into the mindset of the man with no excretory control is a daring one.
We must presume maleness as a function of the intended viewer, for our viewpoint protagonist is Neil Patrick Harris’s (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) Patrick, a New York City advertising professional and expectant father. The narrative thread of the wife character, Grace (Jayma Mays: Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Red Eye), is mostly taken up with being hugely pregnant and smiling adoringly at everything, including the gaggle of small blue Smurfs that have invaded their apartment, so we can discount her as a major player in the goings-on; she certainly suffers from no inner conflict. Patrick is both having trouble at work, where his lady-witch boss (Sofia Vergara: Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, Lords of Dogtown) is threatening to fire him if he doesn’t come up with a killer campaign for her cosmetics, and on the homefront, where he finds himself doubting his ability to be an effective parent (despite the relentless cheerful lovingness of Grace). Patrick will receive both career advice and encouragement in the area of fatherhood from Papa Smurf (the voice of Jonathan Winters), who seems nearly as concerned with ensuring that Patrick’s life is running smoothly as he is with returning himself and his small band of accompanying Smurfs back to their enchanted forest, from which they have traveled by magic wormhole to New York City.
That the vagaries, both metaphysical and quantum physical, of wormhole travel are left untouched renders it an exercise in challenging the viewer’s notions of reality itself. Similarly, the apparently bizarre contradictions of The Smurfs extend, in a daring fashion, beyond the seemingly narrow targeting of its story alone. The Smurfs, as a species, are explicitly stated to be “three apples high,” and yet we can clearly see in the visuals, a mix of live action and animation, that they are very obviously no more than one apple high. Director Raja Gosnell — auteur of such films as Home Alone 3, the Scooby-Doo cycle, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua — very blatantly presents the Smurfs to us with all the usual signifiers of “cuteness,” and yet just as blatant is a presentation that creates in one the urge to crush them under one’s boot. In one dramatic sequence, Gosnell overtly toys with cinematic expectations, sending the city-stuck Smurfs careening to escape being run over by the endless Manhattan traffic in a way that utilizes the structural clichés that make us hope they will not be smashed flat — camera angles that offer the terrified Smurfish perspective; music in the key of suspense — and yet also somehow evoking a desperate wish that they will be smashed flat. The genius with which Gosnell simultaneously evokes such disparate anticipations in the audience is remarkable.
The cleverness of The Smurfs never ceases to astonish! Gosnell plays with product placement, launching an extended sequence set in the famous toy store FAO Schwarz with a chase set in the plaza outside… while at the same time completely avoiding getting even the tiniest sliver of a shot of the dramatic glass-cube Apple store situated in that very plaza. (By spectacular contrast, Sony computers litter the film.) The film preempts one possible criticism — the oddity of Smurf civilization consisting of 99 male Smurfs and one female — by having Gargamel, the villain, make note of it, thereby undercutting all complaints about it, for the villain has already dispensed with them. Later, the film will underscore the gender imbalance of Smurfkind by both highlighting Smurfette’s (the voice of Katy Perry) femininity in an homage to the famous Marilyn Monroe subway grate wardrobe malfunction and by allowing the male Smurfs to rap their horniness and desire of her in a tune set to Aerosmith.
Truly, the levels of contradiction, complexity, and confoundment will take multiple viewings to unravel. I have only just begun to try to make sense of it all, and I don’t expect I will come to any meaningful conclusions for many years.