Last month Den of Geek attended a presentation at Sony Pictures Animation for several of the studio’s upcoming animated films, including Smurfs: The Lost Village, The Emoji Movie, the faith-based The Star, Hotel Transylvania 3 and the animated Spider-Man feature (which you can find more on here). First out of the chute on April 7 is Smurfs: The Lost Village, the third feature starring the little blue creatures but the first to go all-animated, with no live action and no connection to the first two movies.
In other words, Smurfs: The Lost Village is more or less a reboot of the beloved children’s franchise, a description that director Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) has no problem with. “I don’t know why people don’t like that word, I guess it’s overused perhaps,” says Asbury when we sit down with him in a SPA conference room after the presentation, which featured clips and/or production art from all five films. “Let’s just say that this is a re-envisioning. We are restoring Peyo’s vision in dimensional film form, so maybe it’s a restoration of a franchise. Visually it certainly is. We did want it to be as much a new version as we possibly could. We wanted to make it stand alone. It’s not Part 3, it’s a freestanding film.”
Peyo is the pen name of Pierre Culliford, the Belgian comics artist who created the Smurfs, known in French as Les Schtroumpfs, way back in 1958. The tiny humanoids have expanded over the decades into a billion-dollar juggernaut encompassing TV, toys, video games and much more. Sony’s two feature films, released in 2011 and 2013, were met with scathing reviews; while The Smurfs grossed a very healthy $564 million worldwide, The Smurfs 2 dropped to $347 million, prompting the studio to scrap a proposed third live-action/animated hybrid in favor of a fully animated story with no human characters or actors (save for the voices provided by a cast that includes Demi Lovato, Mandy Patinkin, Joe Manganiello, Rainn Wilson, Julia Roberts and more).
For Asbury, going back to the source — Peyo’s original artwork — provided him with the inspiration he needed on the film. “I watched the live-action hybrid movies and the Hanna-Barbera (TV) version, which were really the only introduction that I had of the Smurfs when I started this project,” he recalled. “Then I started looking at the original. I went back and read up on Peyo and started really getting a look at this world and I thought, ‘Gosh, there’s so much wonderful shape-language and wonderful artistry in what he did.’ He was a contemporary of a lot of the artists at Disney who were making Pinocchio and Snow White and he really was in their age bracket. I just thought that nothing had really ever fully reflected the beauty of what he did, and the shapes. So I wanted as much as possible to capture what he did.”
The decision to ditch a third film in the initial series and go all-animated was already made by the studio by the time Asbury came aboard the picture. “The studio had decided they needed to do a film that was completely animated,” he said. “They wanted something that was broader in scope and able to be more imaginative, which animation offered. When I came onto it, I don’t think the decision had been made yet to go as far back as Peyo to really recreate that, but I looked at the Peyo comic books and I said, ‘Guys, this is what we ought to be doing.’ It wasn’t very hard to win them over to do that. The minute we started building these characters and turning them around in three dimensions, and they really did look like Peyo, everyone was very excited about it.”
Perhaps the biggest deviation from Peyo’s work is the inclusion — a sensible one in 2017 — of more female Smurfs in the story after decades of Smurfette (voiced by Lovato) being the only one. “The biggest question that everyone always has about the Smurfs is, ‘Why is Smurfette the only girl?’” explains Asbury. “There really is no clear explanation for that; I think later in his comics, Peyo might have introduced a couple more but they were never very popular. We decided, okay, what if there were other girls? What would it do? Would it be mind-blowing to these Smurfs? It would be mind-blowing to even Smurfette, that there’s another village out there, and there’s girls living there too. It would be a whole new thing. The dramatic impact of that was exciting.”
Peyo died in 1992, but his children still control the franchise and Asbury wanted to make sure they stayed involved in the process of making Smurfs: The Lost Village. “They weren’t involved on a daily basis, but certainly as we designed this movie and as the story came into focus, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t break any of the rules that the franchise has established over the years,” he says. “One example is, the Smurfs can only eat Smurfberries. They can eat Smurfberry pie, Smurfberry sandwiches, all that, but it’s always Smurfberry-related food. I didn’t know that, that’s just one example. Smurfette can be the only blonde; if there’s going to be another girl, Smurfette’s the only one that can be blonde. We just wanted to be sure we honored certain things. I think they’re very happy with the result. We were very sensitive to what they wanted and didn’t want. It was a great relationship.”
Asbury says his experience on Smurfs: The Lost Village was so positive that he would “love to make more of these,” adding that he’s “fallen in love with the characters.” After spending three-plus years in the world of the Smurfs, you might think he would be tired, but after 34 years as a story artist, director and writer, he’s gotten used to the large chunks of time that animated films can take up. “Whenever I start one, I always say, ‘Now it’s my freshman year of high school again, and now I have to go through high school.’ My stepson went through college during this exact time that I’ve been making this movie, freshman year to senior, and when you look at it in that perspective it’s always a little bit mind-boggling.” But he adds, “I do enjoy it. I don’t mind the length of time. It’s a bunch of short-term goals.”
Smurfs: The Lost Village is out in theaters April 7.