23 February 2010

Coming Attractions: You Should Give A Smurf about THE SMURFS

If you're asking yourself why anyone would give a flying Smurf about the Smurfs' next box-office adventure,  you might want to think about the big blue picture before drawing any Smurfing conclusions. 

Sony Pictures Animation (along with Producer Jordan Kerner) signed on to re-Smurf the Smurfs several years ago, with initial plans to feature the white-capped race of little blue forest creatures in their own trilogy of films. Sony then scheduled The Smurfs premiere for December 17, 2010 - but given the coming Christmas season's slate of films -- the genre -competitive Yogi Bear, Tron: Legacy, and The Green Hornet among them - the competition appeared to stiff and the studio has now dropped its Smurfs back for Summer 2011 release. 

We think it's likely that besides its competition, The Smurfs - which will be yet another film promising a big 3-D release thanks to Avatar's popularity - has a long way to go before it's in the proverbial can.  While Sony announced earlier this month that actor Jonathan Winters  has been cast as the voice of the oldest of the small, socialist Smurfs, the bearded Papa Smurf, little to no information on the film's storyline has  really surfaced.  What has comes from the studio's casting notices, all of which suggest that The Smurfs won't be an animated feature film, but like other cartoon-based Hollywood Smurf-ups, another attempt to merge live-action filmmaking with CGI animation (think Garfield or Alvin & The Chipmunks, not Avatar). 

If the mere thought of Chipmunks, Garfield, or other animated mash-ups like them made you cringe, we feel your pain.  Take into account that Raja Gosnell, the creative vision and director behind modern-day mistakes like Scooby-Doo and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, will also be helming The Smurfs,  there's no question it's Tylenol time. Gosnell's past films have only proven that he doesn't understand the type of stories he still somehow is allowed to complete.

The looming question is, of course, does anybody? We can't think of any live action / CGI blend that's actually pulled-off what it wanted to accomplish -- but it's probably because those films are trying to accomplish too much. Hollywood wants to make everybody happy; veiled adult humor, innuendo, and campy one-liners that appeal to adults and wise-cracking tweens while being uttered from the mouths of kid-friendly cartoon caricatures -- and all of it to the Nth degree.  If you managed to sit through even five minutes of Chipmunks, you know what we mean.

Okay, abbracadabbling, you're thinking, why should we give a Smurf about The Smurfs after all this?
That's Pierre Culliford - better known as Peyo - an illustrator and dental assistant who finally found success when he created the Smurfs (or, schtroumpfs) in 1958.  Much like a Belgian Walt Disney, Peyo's Smurfs grew from being a back-up feature in Le Journal de Spirou to stars in their own right through the magic of simple animation and music.  It would take over twenty years for that popularity to reach States-side, but it did in a big way when in 1981, the celebrated cartoon duo Hanna & Barbera began producing a new Smurfs Saturday morning cartoon for NBC. No fewer than 256 episodes were made, and still show in over thirty countries world-wide. Smurf comic books have sold 25,000,000 copies since, and in the last three years alone, over 10 million copies of Smurf CD's have been sold.  In 2008, the Smurfs celebrated their 50th Anniversary -- one of the main launching points of Sony's 2011 movie.
Collective nostalgia has brought the Smurfs back into the mainstream, and as nostalgia easily translates into box-office bucks, Hollywood was certain to capitalize on Peyo's creations. But Hollywood sucks Smurf at adapting 80's fare. Creating movies that appeal to 1980's kids turned adults - and their kids - just hasn't worked, especially where CGI and talking animals - or little blue elves, as the case may be - are involved.  But why care - and, just as important, as this trend is undoubtedly going to continue - what to do?

The Dabbler, and most of the hard-working folks in the Springfield Home Office - are children of the 1980's, and whether the sing-song Smurfs drove us mad (as they even did Peyo, who couldn't understand their success) or not, imaginary childhood companions are not to be trifled with.  Similarly, as universal artistic creations which have obviously stuck a cultural chord, the Smurfs are, in that sense, a property that deserves both respect and a thoughtful, clever approach.  To do so takes an understanding of both the qualities of the characters  being portrayed as well as the film's intended audience. Neither were apparently taken into account by blunders like Scooby Doo, and so far, The Smurfs aren't either.
Like any sustainable creation, the Smurfs' universality has been the secret to their appeal for the last half-century. One key signifier of their universal quality comes from the fact that few cartoon characters have generated such adoration - and such hatred - as the Smurfs have.  The little blue men have been read as everything from subversive crypto-Marxists to Socialists to anti-Semitics.  Other interpretations have heaped huge helpings of homosexual and misogynistic overtones on them, while still others have taken the Smurfs down a militaristic - even neo-Nazi-like - road.   There's abundant examples of the Smurfs being treated in this way - Robot Chicken's Blue Buddies Smurf parody just one example.

None of those interpretations, whether derived seriously or by jest, come from any kind of Smurf canon. Unlike superhero comic book adaptations, the Smurfs - outside of their basic premise - aren't weighted down by years of story and devout fandom.  Last summer's live-action GI JOE proved a success, faithful only to the names of the toyline that inspired it, but left comic book and morning cartoon treatments out of the picture. 

Even to the extent that they are, movies like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight have clearly shown that success is more than possible - and that age-old characters are more than capable of being made relevant to new audiences - if the universality of character is well-understood and well-executed, no matter the amount of CGI that comes with its package.  If the film's world is accepted, audience's would accept its Bat-men and little blue men, too.
But the audiences are what Hollywood's studios are afraid of and therefore so eager to appease. While forgetting entirely their first order of business - to make a quality film - producers contrive content to match the audience they believe their movie will have. And that would be fantastic, except that audience is not the one that will actually be filling theater seats. If anything, movies like Scooby Doo and Chipmunks prove that studios underestimate the movie going public, it's parents and their children.

We can't think of a better example with which to make our point than Britney Spears. Despite her tragic Smurf-ups of the past few years, Brit's music hasn't changed as much as her figure. Nobody would ever classify her songs much less her scantily-clad stage acts as 'fit for all audiences', yet all audiences is exactly who she attracted. At one of her concerts we attended five years ago at the Arena in Oakland, California, we'd estimate the number of parent-accompanied kids under ten probably equated to 50% of the audience.  The other half or less drew largely from the junior high and high-school set, with maybe 20% being older adults. 

If drawing a comparison between Britney and the Smurfs is the fair one that we think it is, then a Smurf movie that's not dumbed-down or camped out is entirely possible. Pushing things toward the Robot Chicken end of the spectrum isn't necessary or even suggested - but making a relevant, watchable Smurfs certainly is.  

We'll be Smurfing more on the Smurfs soon! Meanwhile, we want to know what your dabblers think! Are The Smurfs doomed to be Smurfed-up by the mother-Smurfing studios, or is there hope at the end of little blue tunnel? And do you even care? Did we get you to care even one little Smurfing bit more? Let us know through our Back Issues below!

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