Where is the Smurfs Nostalgia?

Box Office

The real Lost Village for these iconic characters is Fanville.

My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was watching TV yesterday when a Smurfs: The Lost Village commercial came on. “Trolls!” she shouted, mistaking the new movie about little blue creatures for the recent movie about little pink and orange and blue creatures. One bunch wears white hats, the other has crazy hair, but it’s easy to see how they could be confused, especially by a toddler. And she didn’t even see any footage of Gargamel, whose Smurf-consuming desires are akin to the Bergens and their taste for Trolls.

Did Trolls trump Smurfs, causing the latter to open much lower than initial expectations? The Lost Village had originally been projected for a $20m opening, if not slightly more. Then The Boss Baby became a hit last weekend, and predictions fell to $15m-$18m, the higher end of that range being what the live-action/CG hybrid The Smurfs 2 debuted with in 2013 ($19m, adjusted for inflation). But even that tracking was apparently generous, as the estimated domestic gross for the weekend is only $14m. The animated feature was winner among new releases but came in third place overall.

Or is the more present success of The Boss Baby, which held onto the top spot for a second week (with $26m), the reason for Smurfs’ failure? Is there some metaphor to be read into the popularity of the movie about a literally infantile capitalist leader being higher than that of the movie about creatures associated with communism? Or do audiences just prefer original stories, or seemingly original stories, in their animated features rather than familiar characters who’ve overstayed their welcome on the big screen (see last year’s The Secret Life of Pets compared to Ice Age: Collision Course).

Wait, but Beauty and the Beast is still a humongous hit (bringg in another $25m for second place), mostly fueled by nostalgia for the animated feature it has adapted to live action. Maybe the audience that grew up with the Smurfs isn’t interested in that property after a couple corny features that couldn’t trust in just the iconic mushroom dwellers and their own fantastical world (the first one is actually not that bad). As someone who grew up with the 1980s cartoon series, I was surprised the forecast for the new movie was so low, but then I realized that The Lost Village is not really for former fans who’ve grown up. It’s for new kids.

But how do you get a new generation to go to see a Smurfs movie? You either keep the property alive so the kids have already become familiar with them through a new cartoon on TV. Build a new built-in fanbase. Or you make something that appeals to the nostalgia of adults who will bring their little ones. Kids today have so many choices, and they already have plenty of their own favorite miniature creatures, including Trolls and Minions. By the same measure, you can’t just release a Snorks animated film out of nowhere aimed solely at kids. They’ll be like, “We’ve got Bubble Guppies, thanks!”

The Smurfs could really be a huge franchise if done right. Introduced in a Belgian comic book almost 60 years ago, the characters have at least remained pretty famous as things that exist, mostly because they are very recognizably unique (at least to non-toddlers). But they’re not pushed into the pop culture like they were in the 1980s. When I was a kid, we had Smurfs sheets and curtains and everything else merchandising allowed for. I collected tons of Smurfs figures, of which there were countless numbers each representing a different personality or profession or hobby. With such variety, those would be great to bring back in the “blind bag” era.

Forget making them fish out of water in “the real world.” We didn’t need Smurfs Take Manhattan. Forget having them go on adventures to other strange places in order to introduce more female Smurf characters, as noble as that idea might be. Just focus on the Smurfs in their own Smurf village and find a story there. Maybe later branch them out to other territory – sure even a crossover cinematic universe where they meet the Snorks and maybe the Shirt Tails, whatever. But after so long, a property like The Smurfs needs to have a new foundation from which they can be expanded narratively.

Of course, none of that is likely consciously on the minds of kids, adults, and families altogether ignoring the first fully animated Smurfs feature film in more than 30 years. Even though the fact that it’s the third Smurfs movie in six years and certain audiences might see this as too much (many may also assume it’s another live-action effort), I do believe Sony didn’t capitalize enough on the success of the first, back in 2011, to keep people believing in these characters. They have a basic one-note premise, but they also have plenty of potential. There’s a reason their cartoon lasted a whole decade.

Sadly, this could be the end of the Smurfs for a while. As usual, the property, which originated overseas, is doing better overseas but possibly not enough that a sequel is worthwhile just for those markets. Right now it looks like audiences aren’t interested in Smurfs, so no new cartoon series or comic books or pillow cases, which is too bad because that would build up a crowd for a possible reboot five years from now. Not everything that’s old is easily and automatically sold just on familiarity. You have to create interest. Hopefully the Smurfs will find or be given the wider interest they deserve again someday.