It doesn’t take much to cobble together a fizzy Hollywood spectacle these days; hire an expensive, A-list cast, dress their voices with eye-popping animated characters, slather it all in the nostalgia of a pre-established series, and, before you know it, you’re three Smurfs films deep into a franchise.
For today’s kids, though, the Smurfs haven’t exactly staked as much territory inside the pop cultural canon as the likes of Mickey Mouse, the Minions, or even Pixar’s revolving menagerie of cartoon critters. Still, after the worldwide success of two prior installments, the little blue critters are back on the big screen in The Lost Village, a saccharine fantasy-adventure that’s sure to tide the tots over until a shinier one (Cars 3, anyone?) comes along to take its place.
For a moment, let’s consider the parents, though. They have to sit through this thing, too. With its heart in the right place, The Lost Village checks all the expected boxes as it seeks to warm every heart across several demographics: It follows an underdog (an outcast among her peers, Demi Lovato’s Smurfette longs to find her true purpose) who stages a seemingly insurmountable journey (saving a nearby town before the wicked wizard Gargamel destroys it), and ties it together with a neat little bow at the end. In its liveliest moments, it’s a candy-coated sugar rush, though its mind-numbing repetitiveness (and haphazardly-written screenplay) will likely test even the most patient parent.
Beyond the bubblegum exterior, however, a powerful sentiment drives much of The Lost Village’s action; as Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) muses from the start, Smurfette’s identity is rooted in how others perceive her, and she’s never been afforded the opportunity to “tell us who she is.” Thus, Smurfette sets out to make a name for herself amid a sea of men and patriarchal social mores that dismiss her perspective—an essential undertaking for a fictional character at a time when little girls need to be told that they, too, can save the day—even if the opposition seems overwhelming.
Along the way, Smurfette’s quest teams her with a band of quirky companions, from Joe Manganiello’s burly Hefty Smurf, the graceless Clumsy Smurf (Jack McBrayer), and the Danny Pudi-voiced genius Brainy Smurf. Even the vocal talents of Julia Roberts—who sounds like she’d rather be filming Larry Crowne 2 than cashing a check, here—make an appearance in the role of Papa’s female equivalent, Smurf Willow, but nothing can lift a drab sense of defeat bubbling under the gloss of The Lost Village’s neon-plastered paint job.
For how topical its inclinations are, it’s still wrapped in a ridiculous package hand-delivered by cyan humanoids. Absurdity isn’t always the mark of simplicity, however. Ambitious films like Inside Out and Zootopia—about personified emotions living inside a girl’s brain and a city populated by talking animals—prove sharp wit and kid-friendly appeal don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Lost Village buckles under the pressure of the bar set by far superior titles that have come before it, skimping on narrative nuances in favor of a showy fireworks display that’s bound to distract the little ones on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but might leave mommy and daddy blue in the face. C-