How many times can you revisit a particular creative well before it dries up? It had seemed like we’d reached that point with the Smurfs after the two most recent feature films, “The Smurfs” (2011) and “The Smurfs 2” (2013), desperately flailing and witless attempts to keep an aging franchise alive.
The prospect of a third film in that vein sounded less like a fun family outing and more like a sociological experiment in pop-culture Stockholm Syndrome.
Happily, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is a much-needed course correction for the franchise. It veers sharply away from the abominable union of animation and live action and the resulting juvenile humor that made the first two films so unpleasant, and aims its jokes and joys at a younger audience. This fully animated reboot embraces the Smurfs Saturday-morning-cartoon roots and creates a sprightly, colorful, age-appropriate adventure for young children fresh to the little blue woodland creatures.
Smurfette (Demi Lovato) takes the spotlight in this outing. She’s experiencing something of an existential crisis. Originally created by evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) from a lump of blue clay, Smurfette isn’t quite like her brethren; she doesn’t even know if she can consider herself a “real” smurf. In a village where everyone is defined by their chief characteristic — like her friends Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), Brainy (Danny Pudi) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello) — Smurfette is a Smurf apart.
While she’s pondering her place in Smurf Village life (and in life at large), at the edge of the wilderness she spots a mischievous twinkle and a flash of blue skin — a Smurf! But the mystery creature startles and scampers off into the Forbidden Forest.
Gargamel, meanwhile, is still very much on the hunt for Smurfs, devising new nefarious tactics for capturing the magical little creatures and draining them of their essence. When Smurfette unwittingly tips Gargamel off about the existence of a possible lost Smurf Village in the Forbidden Forest, the wizard sets off to capture them. Smurfette must warn them, so sets off with Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty through the perils of this uncharted territory to save the day.
The animation is bright and simple, unsophisticated but not artless. The Forbidden Forest is flush with creative, often treacherous flora and fauna, such as fire-breathing dragonflies and bioluminescent “glow” bunnies.
Importantly, this Smurfs adventure isn’t suffused in the sort of crude potty humor that has become de rigueur. There’s a touch of it — butt-biting “bottom feeder” fish, belching flowers, a noxious reference to underpants cheese — but mostly the experience is pure. It’s also not drowning in anachronistic pop-culture references, and the pop-song interludes are mostly harmless (except for a remixed resurrection of Eiffel 65’s Europop hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” which is better left buried in the ashes of the late ’90s).
“Smurfs: The Lost Village” keeps its focus on positive messages delivered by winning characters. It’s a story about female empowerment, sticking by your friends and charting your own destiny in the world, whatever your roots. It’s a kid’s movie content to be just that, and after the last two Smurf films, the subdued ambition is a welcome relief.
Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network
Sony Pictures Animation presents a film directed by Kelly Asbury and written by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon. Rated PG (for some mild humor). Running time: 89 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.