Those bright blue staples of ’80s kids’ TV are back, and on surprisingly good behavior, in “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” a relaunch that ditches the franchise’s recent live-action approach in favor of fully animated adventure.
The new movie keeps familiar cloying impulses in check, going easy on its use of “Smurf” as all-purpose grammar, and barely la-la-ing the cartoon imps’ theme music. But all the restraint shown by director Kelly Asbury (“Gnomeo & Juliet”) and his team also results in entertainment so generically gentle, it doesn’t compare to last year’s similarly themed, tonally looser “Trolls.”
The Smurfs do get up to a bit of mischief, of course. The appealingly thoughtful girl-power setup takes the trouble to question why Smurfette (Demi Lovato) is identified solely by her gender, unlike Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Brainy (Danny Pudi), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), and the rest. (Love the quick glimpse of Therapist Smurf.) What defines Smurfette, exactly? Even Brainy’s fancy new trait-analyzing invention glitches over that one.
Smurfette begins to find her elusive sense of self when she and the guys go questing after a mystery Smurf she spots on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) orders them to stay home, but they can’t just let wizardly nemesis Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) beat them to some unknown sprite sanctuary.
All these cobalt critters scurrying around exotic woodland makes for colorful imagery, even if it frequently plays like a kiddie knockoff of “Avatar.” Narratively, though, this core stretch lacks energy. A chase sequence featuring cutely rendered dragonflies has style, but nothing else really qualifies as an attention-grabber.
Things pick up with the Smurfs’ last-act arrival at their enigmatic destination, a reveal that we won’t spoil other than to say that Julia Roberts is among those joining in on the voice-over jamboree. But it feels like the movie could have been delivering on some fun possibilities all along. Gargamel as interpreted by Dwight Schrute? Fantastic — but Wilson’s material isn’t as clever as his casting. Tapping Jake Johnson to lend his “New Girl” contrarianism to Grouchy Smurf is another promising idea, but he’s only around for one scene.
Setting a quick montage to Eiffel 65’s dance hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” might be the most inspired touch of all. But where “Trolls” understood the importance of complementing “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” with other memorable musical moments, “Smurfs” doesn’t oblige us this way. We’re just left hanging, a little blue.
Smurfs: The Lost Village
Directed by Kelly Asbury. Written by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon. Starring Demi Lovato, Joe Manganiello, Jack McBrayer, Rainn Wilson, Julia Roberts. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 89 minutes. PG (some mild action, rude humor).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.