The Smurfs take Manhattan
LOS ANGELES—Almost 30 years after NBC president Brandon Tartikoff asked producer Jordan Kerner his opinion about doing an animated series for evening TV, otherwise dignified director Raja Gosnell found himself sitting on a studio floor, moving around tiny characters and mimicking their voices.
The TV show was the iconic Smurfs, which Tartikoff had planned to adapt from Les Schtroumpfs, the cartoons of Belgium’s Peyo (Pierre Culliford). Kerner says, in an L.A. hotel room, that it was an interesting beginning to a story that will see its next chapter on Friday (July 22), when a movie version of the series opens in theatres.
“In 1980, I had breakfast with Tartikoff. He gave me three of Peyo’s books, and I read them until three in the morning. I phoned him and said, ”˜If you keep them the way they are and enhance the adult characters it could work in prime time, but if you don’t they will be perfect for Saturday morning.’ A few months later, they went on the air on Saturday with [animation studio] Hanna Barbera.”
The show ended in 1989, and Kerner moved on with his life. He has made several films that bring together live action and animation, including Charlotte’s Web, and he felt that he’d like to take The Smurfs that route. In 1997, five years after Peyo’s death, he began talking to Peyo’s daughter about the idea of making a movie. “Then, in 2002, I sent a script for Charlotte’s Web and talked about how much I was trying to protect E. B. White, the author. She was interested, and we went from there.”
The story has several Smurfs—tiny, blue humanoid creatures—being chased by their enemy, the sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria), through a portal into New York City, where they end up bunking with a marketing executive and his wife (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays). Gosnell, who has directed two live-action/animation Scooby-Doo films, says that every day he would get down on the floor and try to show the actors and the crew where the Smurfs were. “I would do their voices and I would have specific markers, and we would have little dots or bent wire that made it easier for them to track the Smurfs. But there would be nothing that was really helpful to Neil and Jayma, who would have to improv and just play with it.”
Playing a villain who was born a cartoon could be hazardous to an actor’s career. Azaria says he wanted to play the role close to the vest but was told to “go bigger” by Gosnell.
“I think that we had to find Gargamel,” Gosnell says. “You have to think, ”˜What are the boundaries of that real-life version? What is best for the movie?’ We knew he couldn’t be chewing the scenery all the time, but we felt there was a failed-Shakespearean-actor vibe about a character who makes grandiose statements. Hank is incredibly gifted at that kind of stuff. So it wasn’t me saying ”˜Be bigger’ all the time; it was me saying, ”˜Feel the relish and make it your own.’ ”
Watch the trailer for The Smurfs.