Smurfs: The Lost Village ****

From The Hobbit’s Shire to the Smurfs’ mushroom village, big and small kids love the idea of a place of serenity, harking back to simpler living. Ironically, defending territory from an external ‘terror’ threat by those wanting to change an existence strikes a chord in today’s unsettled world – one way to use Smurfs: The Lost Village to explain world affairs to curious little minds. So, however simple in plot the new Smurfs film first seems, it does combine in one story a positive sense of self-preservation with a healthy dollop of adventure, all for the benefit of kiddies in glorious multicolour with intrepid gnome explorers. It also attempts to shine the spotlight on Smurfette and mould her (pardon the pun) into a lead character in her own right.

Voiced by Demi Lovato, Smurfette is still trying to figure out what her unique skill is, four years on from the second film, and where she fits in in the Smurfs’ world? A chance encounter with a masked stranger in the forbidden forest and a map leads the only girl gnome and her best buddies, Brainy (Danny Pudi voices), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), on an adventure to find a lost village. However, Smurfette has unwittingly led the Smurfs’ sworn enemy Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his beastly crew to the new location – and an untapped source of ‘blue power’ the sorcerer needs to be invincible. It’s up to Smurfette and co to warn the residents before it’s too late.

This time creator Peyo’s Smurfs are re-immersed in their own animated existence – no real-world shenanigans like in the 2013 film or creepy-looking ‘human-featured Smurfs’. Sadly, this also means no Hank Azaria in panto as Gargamel – nor in voice, though Wilson is just as entertaining. It does mean the filmmakers have full creative licence to explore the Avatar-styled world, equally bathed in blue. This film bounces along with 100 per cent enthusiasm and is very much about the gnome personalities, the introduction of which at the beginning wastes no time in reeling off a list of character traits in fun-filled, erratic fashion that younger viewers delight at. The rest of the frenetic pace follows suit, as expected with present-day kids animation.

As the momentum roller-coasters on – requiring a certain degree of concentration, as not to miss any ‘adult puns’, there is plenty of silliness, honesty, vulnerability, bravery and morals for kids to latch onto, absorb and ultimately cheer on their diminutive heroes. Admittedly, some of the funnier scenarios are touched on in the trailer, but the little personalities more than make up for this. Indeed, curiosity pays off as we’re all rewarded with plenty of ‘girl power’ in the end – hardly surprising given the writers are women and the scope for potential storyline spin-offs (and merchandise) could run on for years to come.

The fact is youngsters delight in the idea of little people saving the day in their narratives. The Lost Village delivers this thrill, with a few hiccups along the way. There’s also a nostalgic animated innocence to the whole affair that helps the Smurf personalities shine through – something the very busy, effects-heavy 2013 film lost. Smurfs: the Lost Village even has scampering dayglow bunnies, ready for Easter family viewing. There’s enough cinematic cuteness for everyone; if the plight of Smurfette doesn’t win you over, the bunnies will, while keeping the youngsters entertained for 90 minutes.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Happy Feet Two (3D) ***

More penguins, more dancing set-pieces is what Happy Feet writer-director George Miller gives us again, probably because they make for vibrant family entertainment. Short of the penguin musical, the second film that had some huge boots to fill after the Award-winning first is rather a colourful, sing-song whirl of incoherent plot-lines and snatched, throwaway character comments, even if it does spell mega cute in places.

In Happy Feet Two, toe-tapping penguin Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is all grown up with a young, incredibly shy son called Erik (voiced by Ava Acres) who has two left flippers and can’t join in with the Emperors’ routines. Like father, like son, Erik struggles to fit into this world, and goes off to find Antarctic pastures new with friends Atticus (child rapper Lil P-Nut, Benjamin Flores Jr.) and Bo (Meibh Campbell).

They discover the Adélie penguins, where other ‘misfit’ pal Ramon (Robin Williams) comes from. Their group worships Sven (Hank Azaria), a puffin who can fly, and who Erik is inspired by. Meanwhile, Mumble goes off in search of his son, and after he leaves, an iceberg breaks up, trapping the Emperor colony. These results in meeting and bringing new species onboard and mounting a mammoth rescue. Oh, and there are some krill in the water’s depths called Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon) who decide to be adventurous one day, separating them from their kind and finding waters new…

Four separate writers, means four inputs into this story, including Miller again, which is obvious in terms of the convoluted plot. It’s as though Miller, Gary Eck, Warren Coleman and Paul Livingston pigheadedly opted to get their individual tastes in this to keep everyone happy. In fact the funniest parts – and ones that run as a separate story it seems – are the krill episodes, especially the banter between Pitt and Damon. You do expect the writers to join up the dots in the end to give their separate adventure some purpose, but they don’t. The krill merely live in parallel below the ice surface. Still, as well as the witty repartee, these parts of the film are an excuse for some of the most electric animation on offer.

Apart from the krill, comedy heavyweights Williams and Azaria do not disappoint in trying to inject some much-needed personality into their individual characters to save this film from hinging from one musical set-piece to another. The rest of it is fairly unmemorable long after the event, to be honest. The only astonishing penguin moment is when Erik finds his true talent and massive voice, breaking into a startling operatic rendition, which is quite unexpected and quite magnificent.

The other problem film Two has is all the settings feel like one, so even when the adventure goes off course in another direction there is no visual separation, expect miles of while snow and waddling penguin bodies – the krill moments come as welcome relief. This is an issue – and caused some restlessness among younger viewers – when you have introduced too many characters.

That said the values and morals are the same inspiring and honourable ones, and there are no darker elements in this, unlike other animations in recent years, making it trustworthy and solid family entertainment. Rocker Pink is also a penguin in this – Erik’s mother, Gloria, adding to its music medley, as well as Queen classics, We Are The Champions and Under Pressure, for older members of the audience to nod along to. What Happy Feet Two lacks in robust narrative is made up in song and dance, which provides the thrills – as well as the stars of the hour, the krills.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Smurfs In 3D ***

Seeing little blue people prancing before your very eyes is usually not a sign of good health. But Raja Gosnell’s The Smurfs In 3D makes you feel far from blue and has a simple if predictable storyline that all ages can get involved with. It’s Smurfin’ good fun.

When the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) chases the tiny blue Smurfs out of their village, they tumble from their magical world through a wormhole and into ours in the bright lights of New York City. Now they must find a way back before Gargamel captures them all and drains them of their magical blue essence. They’re going to need some human help first.

If the plotline sounds familiar, then that’s because it is – the idea of mixing live-action and animation was done in the hit 2007 film Enchanted when Giselle pops up and falls in love with a human character in the Big Apple. The Smurfs is much less inventive and charming, and far more slapstick for kids with lots of death-defying accidents and puerile toilet humour, especially when Gargamel is in the frame.

The single most annoying factor for adults here is ‘Smurf-zing’ of all words in the English language. This starts out as quite quaint and a bit of a giggle to share with the kids, but fast wears thin. Still, the little blue people are so cute, cuddly and funny at times that all is very often forgiven as they put a smile back on your pained face – especially when they sing their hypnotic little song that’s actually more fun to sing/hum post-viewing to annoy the hell out of others.

Like all kiddies’ films, the adult heroes are also ‘cute and cuddly’ and funny in a dopey, inoffensive sense. These performances are provided by Neil Patrick Harris as pressurised marketing director Patrick Winslow and Ugly Betty’s Jayma Mays as his hormonally challenged pregnant wife, Grace, two of the nicest New Yorkers any visitor from another world could ever hope to land themselves with. Both Harris and Mays are so kid-friendly and welcoming that it’s hard not to warm to their mounting concern and Smurf loyalty. As always, the lead human character proves his/her worth when the chips are down, and rises to the occasion, proving to the little darlings watching that humanity and kindness to all creeds speaks volumes in any language.

Gurning Azaria who’s the spitting image of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang puts on another daft accent and panto performance to become more animated that realistic, but is nevertheless always amusing to watch, if incomprehensible at times. Smaller children looked noticeably frightened of him on screen – especially in 3D with that nose, so there could be repeats of sleepless nights for kids across the land, mirroring the late Sixties/early Seventies, even though this wizard gets his comeuppance.

Naturally, there is a direct commercial angle to the whole film that cannot be ignored, with ‘spot the Sony product placement’ in virtually every shot – but at least it’s not Apple for once. The other aspect that isn’t really necessary is the 3D, although if you fork out for the ticket price, the overall result is better on the eyes than some recent offerings, and the shots use the technology to the best ability.

The Smurfs In 3D is join-the-dots, made-for-kids goofy blue magic that does nothing memorably new, but is guilty of putting a smile on your face, even after the Smurf-zing assault on the ears. If nothing else, it reinvents the franchise, and adds a little cool blue factor to the iconic figures, especially with Katy Perry being the voice behind Smurfette.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Hop ****

Admittedly, Russell Brand is an acquired taste, and if that taste is slowly turning sour in the mouth after endless media reports about the Brand marriage and rising Brand transatlantic stardom, you would be forgiven for releasing a disparaging groan at the mere mention of Hop – a film voiced by Brand. Much as this thought first curled the toes, the comedian actually tones down his (often) X-rated banter to bring as much heart, spirit and soul to little E.B., the Easter Bunny-in-waiting that it’s hard to wipe the silly smile off your face and grumble. And parents can breathe a sigh of relief, too – their little darlings will not be afflicted by Brandism just yet at such a tender age.

Just like its sugary setting, Hop is designed to sugar coat everything, and cynically give Easter that commercial feel normally reserved for Christmas. Basically, the Easter Bunny – E.B.’s dad (voiced by another ex-pat-come-good, Hugh Laurie) – wants E.B. to take over the family business, a Willy Wonka-styled factory on Easter Island that makes all the World’s Easter tooth rot in one place. But E.B., who is a dab hand at drumming, has grander ideas of making it as a rock drummer, and in typical hormonal teen fashion, goes against what Pop’s wants and runs away to Hollywood – where dreams come true, naturally.

Unfortunately, the streets are not paved with gold or drumming opportunities for talking bunnies. Then E.B. ‘bumps’ into another kindred spirit/slacker, Fred, played by James Marsden, who also has parental problems, and the pair of them, reluctantly, become best buddies while trashing a mansion and meeting the Hoff. After scheming lard-ass chick Carlos (voiced by the dynamically-vocal Hank Azaria) threatens bunny heaven and Easter deliveries, this results in the ultimate job for both rebellious sons, with new bonds and responsibilities forged.

As with every kid’s film, there are endless morals aplenty as lessons are learnt during the coming-of-age process. There’s absolutely nothing new here, except a CGI bunny is having a teenage crisis with a grown man-child. But both do it in an inoffensive and puerile fashion that it’s hard not to awake the big kid inside you, and get on board their voyage of self-discovery. Brand does have some free reign ad-libing in this, and it’s actually catching the throwaway comments that are the funniest, rather than the obvious, slapstick or borderline crass humour. The bunnies have a little annoying lip-synch trouble, too, in both worlds. Marsden goes into Enchanted panto mode, a combination of enthusiastic kid and self-depreciating adult that only makes you root for pathetic Fred all the more. Thankfully, there’s zero romance in this film – a girl-free zone, which would have killed the bromance it plays to. Hasselhof’s camp cameo as himself on a TV talent show is a hoot, even if it adds very little to the storyline, but makes for a droll diversion.

However, the film does feel a little disjointed, at times, ‘hopping’ from the real-world antics of growing up, to evil nemesis takeover mode like Despicable Me (another film made by the same studio), the latter of which has been done to death in recent years. Still, the characters need that crunch point that forces them to unite for the sake of the common good. Sadly, maniacal Carlos, who turns into a ‘bunny chick’, doesn’t appear to have long to hatch and execute his master plan, and the end result is a bit of a flat pancake, to be honest, which is a shame as it’s the trigger of the lads’ newfound maturity. The other issue you might have with Hop is the blatant Santa Claus movies rip-off, the idea that your Easter confectionary is delivered on a large egg-shaped sleigh pulled by hundreds of chicks, substituting Santa for a Leporidae. As previously said, the film-makers are hoping to tap into that holiday magic (and funds), but it’s certainly a case of déjà vu, and a chilling reminder that it’s less than nine months away until the silly season begins again.

Nevertheless, the added bonus is no sign of 3D effects anywhere – yes, a good, old-fashioned kids film of the Alvin and the Chipmunks variety that doesn’t rely on technical fluff to sell tickets, but cute fluffiness of a different kind. So, no need to fork out more for a family ticket, or help balance those overly-large specs on your poor little mite’s nose.

Hop is a sweet cinematic deposit for Easter, full of beans like its rockin’ bunny that all generations can enjoy together. So, hop over to a cinema to catch this carrot of a film.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Love and Other Drugs – 2*

Let’s be frank: This is a film for dedicated Jake Gyllenhaal and/or Anne Hathaway fans because both are paraded in their full glory and look hot to trot (just see the poster) – even the latter, which is tad unsettling, considering she plays a Parkinson’s Disease sufferer on stage 1 of the illness. Now, that’s not to say that looking good isn’t an option, and fighting the disease means tackling everyday existence head-on. But Love and Other Drugs seems confused as to how it wants to be taken, apart from the obvious polished-looking rom-com with two good-looking leads in Gyllenhaal and Hathaway. It simply misses the mark on sentimentality and seriousness of subject matter, coming across as a frivolous fling.

The film does take a long time to get going, too. There is a lot of toned and birthday-suited Gyllenhaal and Hathaway to get through – fans will undoubtedly be pleased to hear – as we witness their first odd meeting and subsequent entanglement. Gyllenhaal looks doe-eyed in Hathaway’s presence – set to melt hearts. Hathaway fires off her standard defensive, sarcastic retorts, before showing her vulnerable side that gets a little tedious after a while. It’s acting by numbers and barely offers anything fresh from either talent. And even when they finally decide they’re ‘sort of’ an item, the plot still feels a little hazy as to its intended direction, leaving a rather deflating feeling in the end. This could well be Zwick‘s erratic direction, though.

Love and Other Drugs starts out as a confident and slick dig at corporate life in the pharmaceutical game with some humorous and cheeky moments, thanks to Gyllenhaal’s steady performance as young salesman buck Jamie with the world at his feet. Enter Hathaway as gorgeous patient Maggie with encyclopaedia knowledge of every Parkinson’s symptom and drug on the market. This is where things start to get a little incredulous. In fact it would have been more believable if Jamie had tried pressing some of his drug wares on Maggie, but he falls hook, line and sinker for her – and the more abrasive she is, the more he chases. It helps that she wants unattached sex, but boy, is there a lot of carnal knowledge to get through before anything really interesting begins.

It does feel like watching two different films. The concept of corrupt medical staff seems like an intriguing one on its own, under the lure of free drugs and Viagra-plugging. This is the really interesting part of the whole story. Apart from Maggie looking tired and getting a few shakes, sporadically, the Parkinson’s gets a brief sentimental look-in near the end when the couple go on the road to find a ‘cure’ and end up at an unofficial convention for the disease. It’s obvious the film-makers want to highlight that any age can be affected but life goes on. However, the easy blend of comedy and heart-felt moments just doesn’t quite mix.

With Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs should be a rom-com match made in heaven, a sexy affair, considering both are fine actors in their own right. But although watchable at times because of the casting, the high that these two should inject fizzles out, once you’ve overindulged in their lust fest and tried in vain to work out what the purpose of it all is – and ‘love conquers all’ just isn’t enough in this case.

2/5 stars

By L G-K