‘Smurfs: The Lost Village’ asks: What’s in a name?

Papa Smurf, voiced by Mandy Patinkin, and SmurfWillow, voiced by Julia Roberts, appear in the animated movie "Smurfs: The Lost Village." (CNS photo/Sony)
Papa Smurf, voiced by Mandy Patinkin, and SmurfWillow, voiced by Julia Roberts, appear in the animated movie “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” (CNS photo/Sony)

Note: there are spoilers but I am assuming you are older than seven if you are reading this and won’t mind or care. Besides if I can’t write about the whole movie this would be a really, really short review.

If the spoilers really matter to you, please stop reading now.

Everything is going well in Smurf Village, where the all-male, blue Smurfkind folk live together in harmony in a village under the leadership of the overprotective Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) and alongside the only girl Smurf, Smurfette (Demi Lovato). She has her own mushroom hut (bedroom) that is very pink.

It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning there weren’t any female Smurfs, but the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) created her out of a lump of clay and named her Smurfette. Then Papa Smurf saved her from her evil ways, and she became the very feminine member of the family. Now, she is wondering about her name. Why it is “Smurfette,” and not Smurf preceded by a personal descriptive, such as Grouchy Smurf, Baker Smurf, Jokey Smurf or Farmer Smurf? Why is she different than everyone else?

Now Gargamel is up to his nefarious tricks again. He steals a map from Smurfette that shows the Forbidden Forest where he believes other Smurfs live, and he wants to conquer them. Out on a walk one day, Smurfette sees a blue creature in the forest. Smurfette and three of her Smurf pals — Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty (who is sweet on Smurfette) —venture onward, but have to turn back when things get dangerous because Gargamel gets the map. Papa Smurf restricts them to their mushrooms for going out of bounds but they sneak out at night to embark on a dangerous journey to find out who these other blue creatures are, and warn them that Gargamel is coming.

Their hike takes them through the Forbidden Forest with Gargamel, his cat Azrael and hawk Monty in pursuit. The Smurfs cross a magical river and are chased (or helped; I couldn’t tell) by beautiful fire-breathing dragonflies. The animation is gorgeous but Gargamel’s destructive darkness is always there. A rather intense scuffle ensues now and after the girl Smurfs join in. Gargamel loses, but I assume he and his feline and aviary henchmen will be back.

Smurfette and the guys finally encounter female Smurfs who are led by the motherly SmurfWillow (Julia Roberts). They are taken to Smurfy Grove and meet the girl Smurfs, who have interesting and descriptive names such as Storm (the tomboy), Blossom (hyperactive), Lily (gentle) and Melody (musical, voiced by Meghan Trainor). Smurfette thinks she belongs but Gargamel saw to it that she returns to her lump of clay.

The Smurfs are in mourning. Then, joined by their love for Smurfette, she comes back to life and they live happily ever after. I suppose the next sequel in this animated franchise will feature wedding bells and a new generation of Smurfs so we can buy more Smurf merchandise and beat a new path to the toy store, or for your shopping convenience, check online.

To be fair, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is an improvement on the 2011 film “The Smurfs” that launched the 1980s television franchise into the global culture of moviedom. I disliked that film intensely. The dominant theme was “all roads lead to the toy store.” I had no desire to see or review the 2013 movie that followed.

I told the publicist for this film that I wasn’t that enthusiastic about yet another Smurf movie. He told me it was upgraded and was all about girl power. He is the most excellent publicist who made sure I got to see “Silence” and attend the Los Angeles premiere, so I agreed to attend the press screening.

“The Lost Village” is much better than I anticipated. Yet it is not about girl power as much as it is about desperate attempts to tell a story about Smurfs, gorgeous springtime animation, replete with a giant bunny that rescues the Smurfs, and identity. “The Lost Village” asks: Who am I? What’s in a name? What is the power of love?

Names are sacred, or should be, in all cultures. If you decide to take your child to see “The Lost Village,” it could present an opportunity to talk about what their name means and why and for whom you named them.

Don’t try to make sense out of the story. It follows the familiar trope: everything’s fine-something happens-they go on a journey-struggle or fight-all’s well again.

One of the boy Smurfs, admiring the talents demonstrated by the girls, says toward the end: These girl Smurfs can do anything! It sounds a little condescending but he’s talking to the guys who have never seen more than one girl Smurf before in their entire lives. Ladies, it’s nice to be noticed for our gifts.

Things are about to evolve in the Smurf world.

Does “The Lost Village” pass the Bechdel Test (to measure gender portrayal in movies)? Yes, it does. The lead is female, she is searching for her own identity, and her goal is to discover female Smurfs who are like her. The portrayal of girl Smurfs, even the stereotypical tomboy, is about them in relationship to their sisters and newly discovered brothers, rather than as love interests. True, Hefty, who wears his heart on his sleeve, is in love with Smurfette, but she is focused on finding the elusive blue creatures to which she is mysteriously drawn, rather than having a boyfriend. The big spoiler is, of course, that there are obvious hints of romantic chemistry between Papa Smurf and Willow; but for this movie, it closes the circle of the narrative — and is a means to cue “sequel,” although one has not been announced. Yet.

Except for Gargamel and his conniving cat and scary bird, the male portrayals are positive.

One hopes this equal representation was intentional from the beginning of the project’s development. The writers are women, Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon. Sony’s animation king, Kelly Asbury, directed and I think he stayed true, well, blue, to the story.

The Smurfs began as a comic strip by the Belgian artist Peyo in 1958. The blue creatures exist in many media forms today, including a list of video games. People have complained for years about the male dominated storylines.

Will kids like it? I don’t know. Will parents like it? I have no idea. I assume the studio tested it on audiences. Will social, cultural and media studies students like it? Yes, I think so, as fodder for their analytical minds and concern about social justice in the popular arts. Cultural representation matters, as does who is missing from the picture.

The cartoon violence in “The Lost Village” is fairly standard but perhaps somewhat intense for little ones. With the bunny and beautiful flora and fauna (except for that cat and that hawk) and a kind of resurrection scene, maybe this is Sony’s Easter movie. Coming in April, without stretching too far, it could be a subtle commentary on care for the environment. I’d have to see it again to be sure. All I know is that I cannot complain this time about a Smurf movie being a vehicle for misogyny or a direct highway to the toy store. On the other hand, the whole franchise is product placement.

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