Smurfs: The Lost Village

(PG)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Movie lovers, especially those who were young kids or were raising them in the early half of the decade, may recall a couple of films starring the Smurfs, the blue elfin gnomes who originally appeared in comics by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in the mid-20th century.

Forget about those live-action/animated hybrid films. “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is a fully animated restart of the franchise — and one I have mixed feelings about for a number of reasons.

The story centers around the lone female Smurf, aptly called Smurfette (voiced by Demi Lovato), and her struggle to find her place among her hundred boy friends. Every other Smurf bears an on-the-nose name — Nosy Smurf is annoyingly curious, Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi) is clever, etcetera ad nauseam — but Smurfette can’t figure out what her descriptor should be.

Complicating matters is that she was created as a black-haired false Smurf by the Smurfs’ nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) before being transformed into the good-hearted blonde Smurfette of today.

Here’s where my objectivity toward the Smurfs begins to break down. As a boy, I enjoyed their exploits on Saturday mornings, but even when I was 10 the origin of Smurfette always bothered me, with its none-too-subtle “dark is BAD, blonde is GOOD” connotation. So during my teen years, I turned on the whole concept, even going so far as to start a club among my friends called the Anti-Smurf League as a running joke.

“No one cares about your stupid 17-year-old self’s stupid club,” someone reading (or writing) this is thinking. The short of it is that I had even less desire to see the 2011 and 2013 Smurf movies than would be expected of a single man with no kids in his early 40s.

Back to the plot: Smurfette represents the “other” in this story from the start, even foiling Brainy’s invention that finds each Smurf’s essential quality. A series of events including being chased by Gargamel and his minions, and discovering the existence of another secret Smurf village lead Smurfette and friends Brainy, Hefty (Joe Manganello) and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) to defy kindly patriarch Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) and leave on a quest to the dangerous forbidden forest.

In one sense, it’s refreshing to see the franchise return to its roots. Even the character designs are much more appealing than the ones in the hybrid films because here they’re allowed be fully cartoony rather than having to make visual concessions to live-action reality. And while much of the first half of the film is annoying kid flick stuff, it’s very much like my memories of the old 1980s cartoon. Up until its midpoint, the film could pass for a big budget episode of the series. (Thankfully, there’s little to none of the random utterances of “smurf” that used to populate the blue gnomes’ speech patterns.)

There’s a brief story moment — an act of betrayal — in the second act that takes the plot to a surprisingly dark place for a kid’s story. It’s nothing that will scar the tykes, but may require parents to discuss the occasional risks of doing good — an important discussion to have in these times when helping others, such as war refugees, may seem the more dangerous course of action.

The latter half of the movie, when the heroes find the titular village (or, more apropos, the villagers find them), is when the proceedings sharpen considerably. There’s a fun flipping of gender norms here — these Smurfs are female yet far more battle-ready than their boy counterparts — but never is it suggested that one side is right and the other wrong. There’s a terrifically well-written meeting between the respective leaders of both villages.

In keeping with the story’s raising of its stakes, the final act and climax do not shy away from the consequences of doing good. And it got this middle-aged sometime-Smurf-hater somewhat into his feelings.

In the end, “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” while not a great movie, isn’t nearly as mediocre as it could easily have been. The addition of the female dynamic to the Smurf mythos is a welcome change. And even my inner 10-year-old is pleased with these dark-haired new heroes.

(Columbia Pictures)