The Tragedy of the Smurfs

My kids got the Smurfs movie for Christmas this year, and we watched it over the weekend. This was not as painful an experience as some of you might expect. Azrael the cat was entertaining, Hank Azaria does a decently cartoonish Gargamel, and I’m rather fond of Neil Patrick Harris.

This wasn’t a great movie, but it wasn’t as painful as some of the “let’s-cash-in-on-80s-nostalgia-with-a-live-action-cartoon-flick!” films.

But when you get down to it, this film is a tragedy that doesn’t know it’s a tragedy.

At one point, the humans are asking the Smurfs about their names, questions like “Are you named when you’re born and that determines your personality, or do they wait until you display a noteworthy trait then name you after that trait?” The Smurfs brushed it off.

Later, Grace asks Smurfette about her origins, and about being the only female in the entire village. Once again, this doesn’t really go anywhere. (Smurfette gets to buy a new dress, and says how nice it is to have a girlfriend at the end of the film, but that’s it … and of course, she immediately has to leave her only female friend!) See also: The Problem with Smurfs.

These are great questions. Powerful questions. Is a Smurf limited by his (or her) name? Can a Smurf ever move beyond the narrow definition of that one limiting trait? The movie starts to go there with Clumsy Smurf, showing his dreams of becoming a Hero and giving him a randomly impressive drum solo … but there’s no true follow-through. At the end of the movie, despite his accomplishments, he’s will always be Clumsy Smurf.

And that’s why the Smurfs are tragic figures. They’re trapped as one-dimensional characters in a 3D film, and the worst part is that they know it. Smurfette knows she’s alone. Clumsy yearns to be different. The Smurfs do occasionally try to move beyond the confines of their names — Grouchy gets sentimental with a green M&M, Clumsy has one heroic moment at the end — but then they’re yanked back from the brink of freedom.

Imagine what that must feel like, to be forced into a single role at birth, a role that not only defines what you’ll do for the rest of your life, but what you’ll be. Trapped. Unchanging. Your name is a black hole, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll never escape its pull. And then to see in humans a freedom that you yourself will never know.

That’s the true dystopian horror of the Smurfs.