By Christopher Campbell | Spout July 29, 2011 at 7:56AM
It is true, "The Smurfs" is one of the more tolerable movies to rape your childhood in a long time. The characters are cute and only minimally obnoxious. The scatological and pop culture references are at a minimum (though "Rango" proved that a lot of both doesn't have to be terrible). And it's self-aware in a respectful fashion more reminiscent of "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" than "The Brady Bunch Movie," so the adults who grew up on the little blue creatures have something to appreciate, and not in too campy a way. Sure, it's basically a rehash of "Enchanted," which was itself basically a rehash of "Splash," and I guess I was too hopeful in thinking some of the reflexivity would involve accusations of communism, but I found the movie to be a slight improvement on at least the more recent of those NYC-set fish-out-of-water fantasies. Probably because even watching Smurfs perform "Walk This Way" as Neil Patrick Harris -- wearing a sadly ironic CBGBs shirt to remind us of how NYC used to be cool and not kiddie -- accompanies on a faux guitar during an extended product placement of "Rock Band" is still better than any of the contradictorily self-parodying numbers sung by Amy Adams in a Manhattan that's portrayed even more Disney-fied than it unfortunately already is.
The amount of product placement in "The Smurfs" is pretty astonishing, though. Not so much the little things like "Rock Band" and M&Ms (one Smurf falls in love with a plush version of the green lady M&M) or the sight-gag references to relevant stuff like Blue Man Group, Blu-ray and Bluetooth, but the overselling of New York City as a tourist destination. Here we have a more realistic portrayal of the Big Apple than seen in "Enchanted," though the mashing of Central Park and Prospect Park is notable. I particularly appreciate the way it shows the Bluetooth-bearing natives obliviously ignoring homeless and out-of-towner alike as Gargamel (Hank Azaria) exists to somewhat equate the two (even if City Hall would likely prefer we think them polar opposites). Not to spoil anything, but the Smurfs end up loving NYC so much that they return home and transform Smurf Village to look like a miniature replica -- minus both the homeless and the tourists, I presume.
Movies set here have been good tourism ads since at least the mid-80s when blockbusters like "Splash" and "Ghostbusters" hit the big screen with relatively positive depictions contrasting against the "Horror City," as Pauline Kael put it, that was portrayed in the 1970s with films like "The French Connection" and "Taxi Driver." During the Koch era, everyone from Muppets and mermaids to Australian crocodile hunters and African princes to Johnny Five and Jason Voorhees took Manhattan and occasionally the outer boroughs, for touristy trips that could for the most part be retraced by visitors from around the world, or at least inspire a few landmarks to visit. New York magazine appropriately made a short list recently illustrating how kids' movies have headed to "the big city," as in this big city, through the years. But they didn't mention the fact that kids are the most easily advertised to.
Comparatively, "The Smurfs" has less plot than many of those older New York films. The blue guys magically end up in the Big Apple, venture through Times Square, which they declare "amazing," run around FAO Schwartz, ride a subway, ride a taxi, ride pigeons and have a showdown against their own personal Voldemort (crossed with Daniel Stern in the "Home Alone" movies, which also went to NYC) at Belvedere Castle. I'm not sure if kids today recognize Belvedere as the exterior of Count von Count's home on "Sesame Street," but even if not it's one of the more kid-appealing spots in your family's New York vacation, much like the giant toy store where the Smurfs are mistaken for playthings (I bet there are actual toys tied-in to the movie all over FAO now) while looking for a mini telescope that Papa can use for scientific stargazing (that better be a strong toy telescope to get through the light pollution of the New York sky).
Parents bringing their children to this movie should be warned they might be harassed for a very expensive Christmas present this year: plane tickets to "the big city."
Speaking of "Sesame Street," by the way, "The Smurfs" has a lot of slight glimpses at Henson-related things wherever the little guys go. Probably without any meaning. But they see Elmo in Times Square, pass a Muppet workshop at FAO Schwartz, and "Muppets Take Manhattan" cameo-er Joan Rivers reappears in kid-movie-world, this time as herself. If only Papa had recruited the "Muppet Babies" in his mission the way he did in "Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue" (anyone?). And while he's at it, Slimer and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might have been lurking around their city somewhere...
For the record, looking at the cartoon characters involved in that old anti-drug PSA, I believe ALF might be the next in line for a feature film trip to Manhattan. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if instead M&Ms get a bit of a spin-off first. Call it "Invaders from Mars," have the green lady fall for a plush Smurf doll and rake in the dough from both candy and tour package sales. So long as you're self-aware enough, some critics will even forgive you, too.
"The Smurfs" is now playing everywhere.
Recommended If You Like: Smurfs; "Enchanted"; "The Muppets Take Manhattan"