The Muppets took Manhattan, so why not the Smurfs? The little blue trolls with the mushroom homes and the most aggravating theme song in musical history invade Manhattan in a bright, broad live-action, computer-animated comedy. It might not be the family film least insulting to its audience's intelligence this season (I prefer "Hop" and "Rango"). Still, "The Smurfs" has brains, heart and style, which will endear it to adults as well as young viewers.
Through one of those handy portals that conveniently appear whenever mythical characters need to land in Nowadays U.S.A., Papa Smurf and half a dozen of his blue brood wind up in Central Park. Hot on their trail are eeeeevil wizard Gargamel and his cat, Azrael.
Hank Azaria is a figure of cackling, scheming Dickensian villainy as the dastardly sorcerer, and also the Wile E. Coyote in a live-action Road Runner cartoon. With aggressive male pattern balding and a potato nose, he resembles the love child of James Taylor and Karl Malden. Cartoon-style sneakiness incarnate, Azaria plays to the balcony in a deliciously overscaled performance. He skulks through the steam clouds issuing from many New York City grates and manhole covers; it looks mysterious and "gives the skin a lovely glow." His cat, with the aid of computer-assisted expressions, has a cavalcade of brilliant reaction shots and double takes. He contributes the year's best performance by an actor with twitchy whiskers and a tail. When the cat has a long, villainous laugh at the Smurfs' certain demise, his master chides, "Now you're milking it, don't milk it."
The film does a nifty job of quickly establishing and skillfully sustaining a kind of fractured fairy-tale stylization. The Smurfs hide from their nemesis by concealing themselves against a Blue Man Group advertising placard, and take shelter with harried ad executive Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife, Grace (Jayma Mays). Patrick, who might be fired at any moment by his fire-breathing boss, is wavering about being tied down to a new dependent. When the Smurfs run riotously amok in the couple's tiny apartment (symbolizing human kids or just the troublesome burdens of adulthood), Patrick's angst skyrockets. Is it possible that having antic little playmates around will allow Patrick to act like a kid again and appreciate his family? Well, let's not give the game away.
Patrick's client is a cosmetics tycoon, and the screenplay finds clever ways to place the Smurfs' nemesis in her orbit, and in conflict with Patrick. Gargamel's oblivious reactions to the brave new world he has entered make for some inspired moments. There's a pricelessly demented episode where he visits a swank restaurant, fills up on "this swill you call Dom Perignon" and commandeers an ice bucket for a chamber pot. I did not see that coming. The movie combines vivacious grown-up appeal with mischief guaranteed to have children giggling. And a handful of moments like that one had the whole audience in a happy uproar.