The Smurfs is a seemingly endless nightmare in which leering blue monsters shill toys, and help Neil Patrick Harris become a better marketer. It's a film about how marketing is awesome, and how people can eventually get used to even the most annoying jingle.
So it shouldn't be surprising that The Smurfs ruled the box office this past weekend, trampling Harry Potter and Captain America. And inflicting humiliation on Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. The whole movie is like an evil celebration of the miserable joy of selling your soul. Spoilers ahead...
So actually The Smurfs appears to have tied with Cowboys and Aliens at the box office, which is still a defeat for Cowboys, for a few reasons. First, Smurfs did way better than expected, while Cowboys massively underperformed. Smurfs was a lot cheaper to make than Cowboys, and had no production partners. Plus all indications are Smurfs will have bigger legs than Cowboys, which may sink like a lame horse in a deep river.
The amazing thing about The Smurfs is, you can actually witness the devouring of Neil Patrick Harris' soul. It happens on screen, and it's an amazing special effect that requires no CG animation or fancy pyrotechnics of any kind. You can see it in every scene where Harris tries to look sincere or real, while channeling and celebrating the most heinous fakeness.
Harris plays Patrick, a young marketing drone at a cosmetics company who's faced with two problems. First, his life has been invaded by little blue monsters who came through a portal from a magical little village. And secondly, he's got just two days to come up with a new campaign for some kind of horrible cosmetics thing. So of course, the little blue Smurfs are going to teach Patrick how to sell shit. Because that's what they're for.
The thing that's really amazing about The Smurfs is the fact that it comments, several times, on how annoying the Smurfs are — usually in the guise of dumping on their godawful "La la la la la" jingle, which rivals Barney's hideous "I love you, you love me" song on the list of the most murder-inducing kiddie songs of all time. Sure, they're all talking about how annoying the song is, not the Smurfs themselves — but since the song is one of the few memorable characteristics the Smurfs actually have, it comes to the same thing.
And Jesus on a pogo stick, the Smurfs are annoying. They're basically the living embodiment of everything that's insulting and vile about animated movies aimed at kids nowadays — the uncanny-valley animation, the dreary hijinks, the bland, paycheck-collecting celebrity voices, and especially the moronic pop culture references and in-jokes that are aimed solely at bored adults.
The Smurfs are little plastic goblins who snatch away every iota of personal warmth or human decency that comes near them. Devoid of humanity themselves, they devour the humanity of others wherever they encounter it, like tiny blue zombies. Actually, they're sort of like crappy leprechauns, only less sly and more obsessed with interior decoration. (They take the time, in the midst of trying to return to the Smurf Village and escape Gargamel, to remodel Neil Patrick Harris' apartment.)
Most of the film's important moments involving the Smurfs are either designed to give them all just enough character to sell Smurf toys — or to show them playing with other sorts of toys, including an extended sequence where they play Rock Band with Neil Patrick Harris. And a nearly endless scene where they run around FAO Schwartz and showcase all the other toys you could buy to shove into the massive landfill of consumer goods that is your child's bedroom. Just in case the message isn't clear enough, at one point during the FAO Schwartz sequence, someone mistakes the Smurfs themselves for toys, and there is a buying frenzy as everybody clamors to buy them.
So the movie admits up front that the Smurfs are annoying and their jingle — which you hear approximately a million times — is like a hundred car alarms' worth of revulsion. And meanwhile, we're reminded again and again, that the Smurfs are cute and awesome and lovely, and that toys are great. This movie is poking fun at its own terrible commercialism, while pushing the commercialism as far as it can go.
It's up to Neil Patrick Harris to overcome the movie's shameless embrace of obnoxiousness through sheer force of likability, aided and abetted by Glee's Jayma Mays. As we mentioned, Harris learns how to be a better marketer by hanging out with the Smurfs — who help him to realize that the best way to sell completely useless anti-aging creams and beauty products to people is by channeling his own sincerity and personal emotions into his ad campaign.
But sincerity, coming from the completely fake Smurfs, is made out of highly toxic plastic. So in effect, when the Smurfs are telling Neil Patrick Harris to put his own soul into his crappy marketing campaigns, they're really telling him to feed his soul, piece by bloody piece, into the marketing machine, to be consumed forever. Which is just what you can see happening to Neil Patrick Harris himself in this movie — so it all makes perfect sense. Harris takes all of his sincerity, all of his lovable realness, and feeds it into the blue meat-grinder while you watch.
Given that this is one of the most popular recent fantasy movies not involving Harry Potter or vampires, it's worth asking what this movie is saying about magic — and that's where the film's magician villain comes in, the only character who has any real ambition or ideas of his own.
The Smurfs are being chased by a sorcerer named Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his computer-enhanced scowling cat Azrael. Gargamel wants the little blue creatures so he can extract their essence (which seems to involve exfoliation and giving them haircuts — more weird plugs for the beauty industry.) The Smurfs are magical because they're a family, but also because they're sexless — much is made of the fact that Smurfette, the only female smurf, is also the only one who wasn't brought via stork.
Why does Gargamel want to siphon the magical power out of the Smurfs? So he can become all-powerful, but more importantly famous. He seems endlessly fascinated by the idea of becoming world-renowned, even though he has only the dimmest notion of what celebrity means. And by siphoning off the pure commercial shininess of the Smurfs, he hopes to become as much of a commodity as they are. (The movie begins with Gargamel holding Smurf puppets and ends with the Smurfs hoisting a Gargamel puppet, suggesting that on some level he's succeeded in commodifying himself.)
In the end, of course, the Smurfs triumph, in a way that just happens to boost Neil Patrick Harris' incredibly crappy ad for perfume or whatever it is. And meanwhile, Papa Smurf has taught Harris the importance of being a good papa to his own child, since Mays is pregnant with Harris' kid. The dialogue between Papa Smurf and soon-to-be-papa Patrick lays it on pretty thick about the importance of putting family first — and returning to the film's central message, the subtext, aimed at the parents, is pretty clear. Just like the crappy Smurf movie they just dragged you to, your kids are pretty relentless — but you can't help spending money on them anyway.
Someplace, Neil Patrick Harris is filling the empty cavity that used to cradle his soul with pure gold ingots.