Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as EruditeSmurf007 and NostalgiaFiend238 in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.
This week, the pair rewatches the trailer for The Smurfs in an attempt to figure out why something that harmless needs to be modernized. Weren’t they cute and lovable before? Does a movie like that really need to fake appeal to a snarky teenage audience or should children and their parents be enough?
Who is responsible for Smurfette flashing her panties at everyone and who on the production thought pop culture references would buoy a terrible film?
In shorter terms, why can’t certain film productions get childhood icons right?
Cole: So a trailer for The Smurfs hit the internet and left behind a trail of blue slime. It looks soulless and moronic, but it raises a greater issue: why do some productions get childhood characters of the past right and others fail so miserably?
I’ve never had any ill will toward The Smurfs until now.
Landon: It depends on what audience the movie tries to appeal to – people who watched the original as children and people who are currently children. When trying to appeal to both, it’s a smurfing ridiculous failure.
It’s hard to make something that feels both like an authentic object of nostalgia and something that’s contemporary.
Cole: Alright. First of all, I propose a moratorium on using “smurf” as a verb.
Second of all, why is that? Is there a real need to modernize The Smurfs?
Landon: Well, that’s what’s so strange about it. The idea is to try to appeal to both old and new audiences to make more money, but in “modernizing” these products they potentially date them all the more, which I would guess probably hurts long-term appeal of the movie as a product. Especially in cheeky (cheap) pop culture referencing.
Cole: Well, even on a simpler level, whoever decided to make the Smurfs “hip” really doomed the entire thing. There’s nothing hip about the Smurfs, and there’s no need to force them to be Fonzie.
He’s still hip right?
Landon: The numerous Henry Winkler posters on my wall give a resounding “yes.”
The Smurfs trailer reminded me of a moment in Space Jam where there’s a very brief Pulp Fiction spoof…
Landon: It was a moment that tried to speak to “hip” older audiences, but in a really direct, superficial way that spoke nothing to the story and didn’t deliver an actual joke beyond Porky Pig being dressed like Jules.
When seeing that film as an 11-year-old, I very much did not get the joke, which was a rather topical one since Space Jam came out two years after Pulp Fiction.
Cole: So the joke was a lazy one to begin with.
Landon: Now, numerous Looney Tunes shorts from the 40s are still beloved, while Space Jam from 1996 seems horribly dated.
Cole: Plus, it seems like the cardinal sin there is thinking that a movie that can be squarely aimed at children, 20-somethings and parents alike should try to get that disaffected 16-year-old market.
You’re exactly right. Some things don’t need to be “updated.” They need to be what they are: classics for a reason. You don’t become an icon by being anything less than universal.
Landon: Well, the interesting thing is, Warner Bros cartoons referenced pop culture all the time, but they didn’t do so in this cheap post-modern way where the reference substitutes for the joke. That’s why they’re timeless even if there’s a James Cagney impersonation in them.
So it’s not only being universal, but it’s not mistaking where the substance of the thing is.
Cole: That’s a matter of making the reference, but exaggerating it so severely that it becomes (please forgive me) a cartoon.
Landon: Forgiven. Now we’re even for my “smurf” verb usage.
There’s no telling if The Smurfs will actually surprise everyone with quality, but from the trailers, it looks like there’s been a profound misunderstanding of what’s entertaining and why. That all seems reflected in the fact that they got the voice of Katy Perry – the last thing people go to her concerts for.
Landon: Well, the “counterargument” will be that it makes a ton of money, like the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies which did the same thing. But I think to their detriment these studios are giving away the potential long-term value of these movies. These kids aren’t going to grow up and still like them.
Whereas Pixar cartoons, which appeal to multiple audiences through substance and story (besides Cars), endure.
Cole: To be fair, writing strong characters and challenging stories is tough!
Landon: My tiny violin is playing sad music for the poor studio heads.
But seriously, in trying to appeal to these multiple audiences, they’re alienating all of them. And by your Katy Perry example, it’s the laziest and most superficial understanding of what appeals to contemporary audiences.
Cole: Katy Perry = Popular = Good. Therefore, Katy Perry in our movie = Good.
Landon: And I have no idea what to do with “Funky Cold Medina.” What do I do with “Funky Cold Medina”?
Cole: You know exactly what to do.
You have a giant dance number inexplicably shoved into the end of your movie to wake the sleeping children up. But what you said about box office is what matters most here. I don’t buy for a second that doing a Smurfs movie was about creative freedom or artistic expression. No one does, and that’s okay. But the studio does itself a disservice by trying to make $80m net instead of $180m net.
By trying to make something cool out of something tragically uncool, they’re missing out on money (like you said, long term) that could be made with a much better movie. Here’s an example where better art actually is better commerce.
Landon: And to continue from that, it’s puzzling that one would take an existing property that was familiar with a certain audience in a certain context and remove it fully from that context.
Cole: The biggest question of all. Why invest in something if you’re simply going to strip away everything about it and replace it with creepy sex jokes about a cartoon girl-thing that’s three apples tall?
Landon: In a way, it’s unfair to compare The Smurfs to Looney Tunes, though, because The Smurfs was only culturally “80s” in retrospect – nothing about the show in its day referenced pop culture or was post-modern. And they made the movie into Hop with blue people.
Cole: The key here seems to be people like Raja Gosnell, whose first directing job was taking everything beloved about Home Alone and turning it into Home Alone 3, wanting to appear current. It’s the cinematic version of the high school chess team champion putting on sunglasses and trying real, real hard to “be cool.”
You can’t try to be cool. You either are or you aren’t. The Smurfs aren’t, and there’s no reason to overvalue coolness when it comes to them. There’s a built-in appeal that gets erased by believing that “being cool” is better than whatever The Smurfs are.
Landon: To that point, Tom Shone wrote an article on Slate this week that we both enjoyed about “the past” represented in summer movies like Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, and Captain America. Those movies are all trying to bank off a very specific type of nostalgia. So it’s so puzzling to see a nostalgic property that’s severed from anything resembling its original appeal.
And that, I’m afraid, is severely not cool.
Cole: But Gargamel is pretty Fonzie-esque.
Landon: Well, Hank Azaria can do anything.
Suggest a topic for next week by leaving it in the comments