Sony Pictures Animation’s fully CG franchise reboot aims to reconnect with original Peyo Culliford comics.
Smurfs: The Lost Village, Sony Pictures Animation’s reboot of the popular ‘80s cartoon The Smurfs, opens in theatres this weekend. The film stars Demi Lovato as Smurfette, Mandy Patinkin as Papa Smurf, Joe Manganiello as Hefty Smurf, Jack McBrayer as Clumsy Smurf, Danny Pudi as Brainy Smurf and Rainn Wilson as Gargamel. In the story, a mysterious map prompts Smurfette, Brainy, Clumsy and Hefty to find a lost village, inhabited by SmurfStorm (Michelle Rodriguez), SmurfBlossom (Ellie Kemper), SmurfLily (Ariel Winter) and SmurfWillow (Julia Roberts), before Gargamel does.
Director Kelly Asbury, who previously directed Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), Shrek 2 (2004) and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), signed on to direct the film in November 2013. He explained that when he was first approached to direct it, he had to a do a little research. “I didn’t know tons about the Smurfs,” he confesses. “I was not really of the age to have been brought up on The Smurfs in America, because they really didn’t come to America until around 1982, and by that time, I was already out of college. I didn’t have kids so I really wasn’t watching Saturday morning television that much.”
Kelly recalled that, ironically, not long after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, he tried to get a job on the original Smurfs cartoon, but wasn’t hired. “But that’s okay. I hold no grudges,” he quips.
“So, when I started researching The Smurfs and learning about the history of them and the franchise itself, I came to discover these wonderful comic books that originally were done by Peyo Culliford back in Belgium in the ’50s and throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and how popular they were in Europe and in Canada and other parts of the world before they came to the U.S.”
He explained that he wanted to go back to those roots and “honor that original, wonderful artwork and the wonderful flavor of the stories Peyo did.”
Inspired by Culliford’s original works, the director went back to the studio and said, “Look. I would love to do this movie, but I want to explore, both in the look of the movie and the style and flavor of the movie. I want to honor those earlier pieces and really present this in a way that maybe The Smurfs have not quite been presented before.”
Asbury explained how at that point, Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation and Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group, got behind the idea of doing a simpler, more straight-forward story that was more appropriate to the material. And so, the film is a complete reboot, and unlike the previous two Smurfs films, which combined live-action and CG animation, this film is entirely CG.
“I tried to approach this movie, and I really worked on the crew to approach it, as if there had never been anything animated of The Smurfs before, not even the TV show,” he explains. “We tried to really start from scratch and from the comic books.”
He estimates that overall, between Sony Pictures Animation in Culver City and Sony Imageworks in Vancouver, roughly seven to eight hundred people contributed to the movie in some capacity.
“Chuck Jones told me years ago, ‘If you want to be a director, make sure that all the people working with you are better at what they do than you are,’” he says. “Fortunately, I was able to do that and it paid off in spades for me.”
“I’m not a digital artist myself,” he explains. “Luckily I had Alan Hawkins [senior animation supervisor] to kind of be the point guard… he knew what I was asking for and I really trusted the artists. Once everyone knew what we were trying to do, they got on board with this sort of language of movement, if you will -- the sort of animation vocabulary that we were trying for -- and it ran very smoothly in that sense. As did all the levels of production through the pipeline, because there was a lot of collaboration and a lot of trust between me and my team.”
Asbury explained that he and Hawkins, along with the animation team, looked to old Mickey Mouse cartoons and shorts like Brave Little Tailor or Mickey and the Beanstalk for inspiration, studying the way Mickey moved, and in particular, the way Minnie Mouse moved around in her high-heeled shoes, which were quite similar to Smurfette’s.
“Chuck Jones is one of my influences, and I think that, regarding Gargamel, he had a lot of influence there,” recalls the director. “Also, one major influence for Gargamel and how he moved, from an animation standpoint, was Captain Hook from Peter Pan.”
“It’s a big action movie and there’s a lot of stuff going on and luckily, Sony Imageworks is such a wonderful place that’s done so many special effects and visual effects for both animated features and live action, that my visual effects supervisor Mike Ford and his amazing team were able to give me almost anything I wanted very quickly,” says Asbury.
In terms of technical challenges, Asbury cited the film’s enchanted floating river. “We really wanted it to be spectacular and something that had never really been seen before,” he says. “I had the advantage of a great storyboard artist named Bryan Andrews who’s done a lot of live-action work on a lot of Marvel projects. He was the first to help visualize what might be happening in this crazy, floating river. I think the result is spectacular and I owe that all to Sony Imageworks and the hard work they did, coming up with something that was unique looking and is a highlight in the movie.”
But the director stressed that “The biggest challenge, I think, always with any animated feature, is story. And one of the things this movie really tried to do was we wanted to honor the material. As a filmmaker, every time I tackle a project I like to really pay attention to, ‘What’s appropriate to this material?’”
Overall, Asbury stressed that he just wanted to make a fun kids movie that the whole family can enjoy. “For lack of a better way to put it, we made a film that I think is very pure of heart and simple and easy to follow, but adventurous and fun,” he concludes. “We tried to make a piece of entertainment that was not cynical, because the Smurfs do not come from a cynical place. They come from a fun, sincere place, and that’s the aim of this movie.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.