Bizarre cameos, nostalgic characters, and jokes aimed at adults, all thrown into Kiddieland — the Muppets franchise has built its success on this format. Can The Smurfs compete in the ring, or are they riding entirely on warm, fuzzy memories of the ‘80s?
Most movies for kids are either cutesy fluff or rapid chains of sight gags and butt jokes. A nod and a wink alluding to some adult, inside joke might get thrown in to keep the grownups from getting restless. In Madagascar, for example, a lemur runs around in a panic yelling “It’s a cookbook!” referring to an old Twilight Zone episode. That one was for Mom and Dad, since few 5-year olds are well-versed in old sci-fi classics. I laughed like a maniac. My kids were unmoved.
On the other hand, there are movies intended for adults and kids to share together. The shorties are entertained, but the adults are rewarded with surprise cameos, grownup quips, and best of all, a healthy dose of nostalgia.
After all these years, Gargamel (Hank Azaria) is still after the Smurfs. When he chases them through a portal, six Smurfs, Gargamel, and his cat Azrael get sucked into present-day New York City, completely out of their element. The beloved characters, voiced by an astounding array of actors/celebrities, enlist the help of humans Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) to avoid the evil wizard and the difficulties of being three apples high and blue in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Patrick’s just been promoted, but his job hinges on coming up with the perfect ad campaign for his boss, Odile (played by Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara), and he only has a day to create it. Mythical blue creatures singing and bouncing around his office are not conducive to the creative process. For Patrick, the pressure to keep his job is doubled, since he and Grace have their own little (but not blue) one on the way. Patrick is unsure of his readiness as a father and second-guessing himself on the ad campaign.
The Smurfs must find a way home, avoid being sucked dry of their magical essence by Gargamel, and somehow help Patrick and Grace knit their lives back together. It’s a tall order for such small creatures.
The Defending Champion
This is the story of how the Muppets met and became stars. We follow Kermit from his swampy home through his journey to Hollywood. Along the way, in singles and groups, he’s joined by the entire Muppet Show cast, all with dreams of fame and fortune. It’s a long trek across the country, made infinitely more difficult by cars breaking down, time constraints, and the crazy Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) chasing after Kermit to force him into being the spokes-frog for Doc’s fried-frog-legs franchise.
The epic romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy also begins here, complete with love at first sight and a musical fantasy sequence of running through fields in slow motion. Love is fickle, and after saving Kermit from Professor Max Krassman’s (Mel Brooks) brain-washing machine, she gets a call from her agent and takes off. True love, however, always prevails, and the travelers pick her up off the side of the road later. Hollywood, it seems, is even more fickle than love.
The entire film is a movie within a movie, bookended by the characters watching the movie that tells their own story. The ending is no surprise, since it began at the end, where success is already a given. The story is not about the destination; it’s about the journey.
Both movies are filled with surprise guests and voices. The credits for the The Muppet Movie are predominantly made up of cameos, as if everyone in Hollywood had been clamoring for a spot. Keeping in mind that the movie is over 30 years old, today most of them are pretty old school. Still, you’re not going to find another film where Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Cloris Leachman, and Edgar Bergen share billing with Steve Martin, Carol Kane, Madeline Kahn, and Richard Pryor. Telly Savalas showed up, as did James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, and Elliott Gould. And did I mention Orson Welles? Not exactly a comedy icon, there. He was magnificent as the famous producer, Lew Lord. All this with music (and a little screen time) from Paul Williams. With that many stars popping up, it’s a wonder the Muppets got any story of their own. The cast party afterwards must have been spectacular.
The Smurfs used a similar trick, sliding in unexpected voices and faces. Wofgang Puck is not a movie star, but he was entirely appropriate for the voice of Chef Smurf. Tim Gunn as Henri was also a surprise, as the fashion icon practically played himself – probably for the best, since he’s not an actor. Joan Rivers popped in, again, sort of playing herself, but under a fictional name. The real surprises though, were the voice talents behind the eclectic village of Smurfs. Katy Perry was wonderful as Smurfette, and the familiarity of Fred Armisen (Brainy), Kenan Thompson (Greedy), Jon Oliver (Vanity), and Jeff Foxworthy (Handy) didn’t leak through to my brain and alert me to their presence. George Lopez as Grouchy was still George Lopez – you can’t miss him.
And most of all, there was Papa Smurf. I couldn’t quite place him while I was watching the movie, though I felt all warm and fuzzy with the rightness of the voice. Jonathan Winters was spot-on perfect as the wise patriarch.
Still, the point goes to the Muppets for the outrageous number of celebrities popping out of the woodwork. What good is a cameo if you don’t recognize who it is until you check the credits?
The storyline for each of these movies was pretty basic. Both are quests to get somewhere else, while being chased by someone bad, and making new friends along the way. In both cases, suspension of disbelief is necessary, but easy. They’re kids’ movies, so the unlikely is more than possible. The difference between the two, however, is the Smurfs’ unlikely events are explained by magic, while The Muppet Movie is unconcerned with what’s plausible. The ridiculous is Jim Henson’s trademark. In this category, I think I need to give the point to The Smurfs, simply because I had no idea where the story was going until it got there.
The engine that drives these movies is nostalgia. When The Muppet Movie was made, it wasn’t exactly old enough for that, but it was still a movie made from a beloved television show. It translated perfectly. The Smurfs are an ‘80s icon, and they had to wait quite awhile before making it to the big screen. The nostalgia was further backed with the annoying, yet catchy theme song, well used in the movie and following us back home. Paul Reubens as Jokey Smurf was an extra nod to the nostalgia of the piece, invoking Pee Wee Herman, another icon of the ‘80s. And this may be me, given the current popularity of Neil Patrick Harris, but he’s always going to be a little bit Doogie Howser in my eyes. So the whole thing was a giant Wayback Machine.
They did a wonderful job honoring the original creator of the Smurfs, Peyo, transforming him into a sort of historian of the mythical beings. And it is he who documented their stories, conveniently leaving behind a book of useful magical spells for the Smurfs to use.
That’s a lot of nostalgia for an ‘80s girl. But does that give it a nostalgia win over the Muppets? I can’t make that call. We’ll have to give it a tie on that point lest Jim Henson’s disappointed face wake me in the night in ghostly sadness.
As far as music goes, The Muppet Movie takes that point with little discussion. The Smurfs had some good music, but it was mostly just soundtrack, songs you can download anywhere. The Muppet Movie was a musical, and while the Smurf song may haunt me for days, I’d much rather sing along with the Muppets.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the humor in these movies. Keep in mind that The Muppet Movie is G-rated, while the The Smurfs is PG. Muppet humor is generally cheesy one-liners and sight gags, and even the more adult jokes aren’t inappropriate for kids. The Smurfs had some hilarious moments, but it was mostly potty jokes, and even some of a slightly more risqué nature. I laughed out loud a few times, but the humor was still a little too heavily reliant on bodily functions.
I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy The Smurfs very much. I thought it was going to be another raping and pillaging of my childhood for the sake of the box office. I won’t say it was a great movie, but I have to admit, I had fun. A lot of fun. I left the movie feeling like I’d gone to an amusement park or a really great party. Surprising, considering my aversion to remakes and re-imaginings of things I love.
Still, taken point by point, The Muppet Movie is timeless and delightful in a way The Smurfs can’t possibly match. See The Smurfs for the fun of it. But rewatch our winner, The Muppet Movie, for the love of it.