Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2017

Smurfs: The Lost Village

Just one of the Smurfs

On the lack of individuality in the Smurf community, the one exception to the rule, and the inexorable path to a cross-franchise blood war

Smurfs: The Lost Village
Columbia Pictures
Director: Kelly Asbury
Screenplay: Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon, based on characters and works of Peyo
Starring: The voices of Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Danny Pudi, Jack McBrayer, Joe Manganiello, Julia Roberts, Michelle Rodriguez, Ellie Kemper and Mandy Patinkin
Rated PG / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 1.85:1
April 7, 2017
(out of four)

Well that was unnecessary.

I mean, if you're doing an anthropological deep dive on the intricacies of the Smurf people and their Smurf customs and history - perhaps for educational purposes - I suppose Smurfs: The Lost Village may have some value. For the rest of us, it's unclear exactly why, after all these years, there's much need for self-discovery and introspection. I mean, is this a species we really need to think too hard about? (Yes, I realize this is a movie made for young kids. They have much better options than this.)

Then again, if you're going to get into the psyche of any one particular Smurf, I suppose Smurfette (voiced by Demi Lovato) is the only way to go. As the lone anomalous female of the Smurf community - or at least this one branch of a Smurf community that may, this film argues, be farther-reaching than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams - she is, by default, the most interesting (if that's the right word for it) of the Smurfs, and practically the only one that's not more or less replaceable. Her existence amidst an entire village of socially awkward admirers has made her presence a perpetually creepy anachronism. (Noted scholar Donald J. Darko once famously offered his own theories about her role in the community - possibilities that were unseemly at best, criminal at worst.) She is the blue, animated embodiment of that cat-calling video that made the rounds a year or two ago - a fate she's chosen to accept. Not that she has many options.

Or does she?

That is the spine-tingling question at the heart of The Lost Village. We'll get to Smurfette in a minute, but the bigger question in my mind is why there have been three Smurfs movies released over the last six years. (And yes, six years, in our brave new cinematic world, is more than enough time to both restart and reboot a franchise. This movie is completely unrelated to the previous two, and trades in its live-action/CGI blend for more standard computer animation.) The films haven't been all that popular, but they just keep on making them. Both of the previous entries cost over $100 million to produce, and the domestic tally was cut in half between the original and its sequel. It rarely fails to surprise me what properties are deemed worthy of continuous effort, what films are considered just enough of a success to continue making more of them. The Smurfs are the Fantastic Four of the animation universe; no matter how much they keep underperforming, the powers that be just keep feeding us this garbage anyway. I suppose you could call this perseverance; it would almost be admirable if it weren't so blatantly soulless.

But back to Smurfette. Here, the filmmakers - director Kelly Asbury (Gnomeo & Juliet) and writers Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon - are not only focusing on her, but self-consciously compensating for the fact that she's been a largely tokenistic oddity for so long. The Smurfs aren't exactly reservoirs of complexity. In fact, the film underscores the fact that all of them are basically one thing and one thing only. They are nothing more than the single adjective that identifies them. Brainy Smurf is brainy. Grouchy Smurf is Grouchy. Farmer Smurf is ... a farmer. That is the extent of their depth of personality. Except, we are finally being told, for Smurfette. In fact, no one - that's right, none of these Smurfs who have known her for the last 51 years - can describe her. Can't say much of anything about her. Don't seem to know anything about her, except the fact that she's a girl. And you thought your friends were misogynistic narcissists.

In any case, Smurfette proves the exception to every Smurf rule. She is the one of her tribe who cannot be pinned down to a single-word descriptor. She, and only she, contains multitudes. And it is she who fortuitously discovers that she and her longtime companions are not the only Smurfs in this universe - that there is, in fact, at least one other hidden Smurf community, this one made up entirely of females. (What are the odds!) The fact that Smurfette was originally an unwitting femme fatale - created by the villainous wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) to infiltrate the Smurfs, like a puppet serving a malevolent god - before being magically transformed by Papa Smurf into a passive blond do-gooder is a bit of gender politics the film would just as well avoid. (Hey, look, The Lost Village is the one bringing up these kinds of questions, alright? I'm only taking its lead here.)

After all these years, and while all of her comrades remain comparatively stunted, Smurfette is finally being allowed to grow up, to leave her mushroom-forest home and strike out on her own. The Lost Village is ostensibly a coming-of-age, teen rebellion movie, with Smurfette taking center stage in a road-trip story that naturally involves an ongoing cat-and-mouse with Gargamel and the Smurfs. The film's one big wrinkle is the titular lost village, which is also where we confront the contradictory internal logic of this supposed tale of individuality. Who we discover in this secret village are not individual female smurfs, but doppelgängers and/or perfectly calibrated compatibility mates for the male smurfs we already know. For Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin), there is the matronly Smurf Willow (Julia Roberts). Et cetera. This is not a world that's opening up for Smurfette (or any of the others), but one that's simply being reinforced, with a slight twist. Girl Smurfs: They're just like us!

Whether they're all better off as a collective of mostly interchangeable parts is a question I'm not interested in asking, but at the very least you could say The Lost Village offers mixed messages on the subject. These smurfs, in both villages, aren't exactly identity-less, but what limited identities they possess - the monotonous representation of which (look at Brainy Smurf being brainy! look at Clumsy Smurf being clumsy!) takes up a good chunk of the runtime - don't exactly make the film's presumptive case for complex individuality.

Then again, this is probably overthinking the matter. This is, after all, a movie called Smurfs: The Lost Village, and it is, by and large, a piece of brand reinforcement. At this point, I can only await the seemingly inevitable crossover - dare I say blood war? - between the Smurfs and the Trolls, those competing hordes of brightly colored, off-putting, mostly indistinguishable, essentially sexless creatures. Coming to a theatre near you in, what say, summer of 2020? God help us if they throw the Minions into the mix.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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