On the Set of “The Smurfs”

Next Friday. The Smurfs will make their triumphant return in the form of their first big screen adventure. Before theaters nationwide start working blue, PopcornBiz got a chance to go behind the scenes to see how, exactly, one goes from Smurf Village to Manhattan.

During our visit to the Sony Pictures Animation offices, director Raja Gosnell (“Scooby-Doo”) and his production team showed off the fruits of their painstaking labors to breathe cinematic CGI life into Belgian cartoonist Peyo’s little blue creations, which first rose to fame in European comic books in 1958 and became beloved in America during their run in NBC’s cartoon series from 1981 to 1989. The filmmakers, acutely aware of the Smurfs iconic, nostalgic place in pop culture, unveiled a series of clips – both in meticulous 3D and standard 2D – that showed off just how seriously they were taking the Smurfy silliness - they even studied the techniques used to give the much larger blue creatures of “Avatar” three glorious dimensions.

The result both lavishly recreates the magical Smurf Village hidden in the Medieval forest and renders familiar faces like Smurfette’s down to each individual strand of luxurious blonde hair, but also thrusts six time-and-space-lost Smurfs into modern-day Manhattan, where they’re pursued by their old enemy Gargamel (Hank Azaria, transformed into a spot-on living incarnation of evil cartoon wizard) while helping a young couple (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays) preparing for parenthood.

“I think to present day generations, just the fun of seeing a Smurf run across the street in their world, in their neighborhood, that you could hold in your hand had a very strong appeal,” says Gosnell of the plan to bring the blue band into a contemporary setting for the first time and play the animated characters off of real-life actors.

“I think the challenge – and also the thrill – for me in making a hybrid film was that we get to open in Smurf Village: everyone is going to want to be in Smurf Village and so we get to see that,” says Gosnell, “but they also get to come to our world and we get to see a living, breathing Smurf in a kitchen, which is an environment that we all know, or riding on a cab in New York City or running through FAO Schwartz. That's something that we can all relate to as part of the real world. I think that set the bar that much higher, that they had to be absolutely real, living, breathing creatures because they have to exist in the world that we know very, very well.”

The sneak peek footage revealed that while longtime fans will get at least a glimpse of just about every major Smurf they remember, the story centers on the six standouts waylaid to NYC: Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), Smurfette (Katy Perry), Grouchy (George Lopez), Brainy (Fred Armisen), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) and the never-before-seen Gutsy (Alan Cumming).

Narrowing down the central Smurf cast was “a big decision,” says Gosnell. “In the early scripts there was 45 to 100 Smurfs. They were all going to come through, and the budget axe slowly dropped on that idea, unfortunately, because it would've been unwieldy. But honestly, about the second or third week of shooting I was like, 'Thank God we don't have a hundred Smurfs here,' because I was busy trying to stage six on a tabletop or on a sofa or something. If I had another 50 to worry about I don't know what I would've done!”

To settle on the final roster, the director says, “the decision was made like any ensemble movie – you want specific voices for specific situations. We needed Papa because he's the leader of the family, he's the wise one, he's the one that's going to get them home. We needed Smurfette because she's the only girl – and she's the most popular Smurf that there is. We needed Brainy because he can come up with ideas, even though a lot of times they're wrong. With Grouchy Smurf. There's always a moment in any foxhole movie where all the guys are saying, 'Yeah, we're going to do it,' and the other guy is going, 'No, it'll never work,’ so you just need that voice. Clumsy Smurf is just a sweet guy: all he wants to do is do well, and he just keeps messing up and messing up and messing up, so it gave him a nice arc to sort of express that and to eventually rise at the end of the movie.”

And then there’s newbie Gutsy – all Scots brogue, tartan plaids and “Braveheart” bravado – who beat out mainstays like Jokey, Handy, Hefty and Vanity for the sixth slot. “We wanted an action guy,” says Gosnell. “The Smurf universe as it existed didn't necessarily have that straight-up, first-through-the-breach type of guy. So Gutsy Smurf was introduced to the world for this. It felt like those six Smurfs gave us a lot of good voices to work with, a lot of great interaction to work with and some good story arcs along the way.”

“I feel like we never set out to reinvent 'The Smurfs,’” say Gosnell. “We just started out to bring them to life, to bring them to the three 3-D world, and the story –  It's Smurf's 'E. T.': They want to go home. The chance for their wholesomeness and their Smurf-ness to drop in the middle of the least Smurfy, least wholesome place in the world and see how these two worlds affect each other positively was just a great storytelling setup.”

"The Smurfs" Opens everywhere July 29th

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