Brainy, Papa, Grouchy, Gutsy and Smurfette in "The Smurfs." (Columbia Pictures / Sony…)
To borrow the lingo of the little blue people who populate "The Smurfs" — What the Smurf? If that sort of bad "blue" pun, as opposed to fun, is to your little one's liking, then parents, you are in for a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, ahem, treat.
Whether the off-color word play makes you cringe for fear that the kids will actually get the joke, or the "la, la, la" song haunts your nightmares, this animated-live action hybrid is really more 3-D disaster than family comedy. Even Neil Patrick Harris, who has proved he can save just about any sinking ship (see prime-time awards shows such as the Emmys or Tonys), cannot make this boat float.
The film is based on characters that began life in the 1950s in a comic book by Belgian artist Peyo Culliford, with the little blue gnome-like softies eventually turning up in lots of different media, including a Saturday morning TV run that turned them into a mini-phenom here. Like Snow White's dwarfs, the Smurfs were defined by their traits, with their appeal a blend of silliness and innocence that very young kids in particular were charmed by (until a big purple dinosaur distracted them).
Director Raja Gosnell starts with the innocence but then loses his way in trying to pull off the hipster spin the script by J. David Stern, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn is shooting for. Neither the movie's sensibility nor its shortfalls come as much of a surprise since Gosnell has been carving a niche in the world of family comedies for a while now. Many of them involve digitally enhanced animal antics and none of them have been particularly creatively compelling — "Scooby-Doo," "Scooby-Doo 2" and "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," for example — and he stays the course.
It all begins in Smurf-land, a cloying, saccharine, sun-drenched world of singing and dancing and virtually no discord, except for the few lumps that come from being too close to Clumsy (voiced by Anton Yelchin). Oh, and there is that nasty wizard Gargamel (a real Hank Azaria, though my guess is he's hoping with the makeup you won't recognize him) on the other side of a permeable, sort-of invisible wall, who's obsessed with getting some Smurf essence.
Things might just rock along with the Smurfs singing on one side of that wall and Gargamel fuming on the other, but there's a blue moon rising. It's mainly just a plot device to help get the Smurfs from there to here, as in New York City, with Gargamel and his weird special-effects cat with attitude, in hot pursuit.
In the city, the Smurfs are soon tangled up with Patrick (Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) — a young couple about to be parents. He's got career issues and an ad campaign to come up with, she's just doe-eyed lovely but a little worried about him. Soon enough their conflicts center around how to help the Smurfs make it back home and what lessons they can learn from Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters).
There are many good actors wasted as voices — Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen and Winters among them — and in the flesh, though the greatest disservice is to Azaria. Sadly, there are no red shoes here and the wizard is a long way from Oz. Instead, there are long, long flat-footed chase scenes. And the interaction between animation and the folks in the real world, well, it's clumsier than Clumsy.
MPAA rating: PG for some mild rude humor and action
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release