Schlocky CGI films for kids haven't been good for their grown-up stars
Few actors actors working today have been on the receiving end of as much goodwill as Neil Patrick Harris. In fact, his career over the past six years could be described, quite simply, as "charmed." A sitcom star, consummate host, champion of Broadway, and ostensible face of the gay-marriage movement, the ubiquitous former child star is easily one of the most popular, hailed, and likable modern entertainers. But will he lose all of that at the bitsy hands of a gaggle of a tiny blue critters?
As the human lead of the live action-CGI animation hybrid The Smurfs, Harris is, for the first time in many years, finding himself part of a project from which even he may not be able to escape unscathed. On the night before it hit theaters, the film, based on the '80s animated series and Belgian comic strip, had a 0 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and was slapped with the label of worst film of the summer—it's since risen to a barely more impressive 20 percent. For an actor who, up until now, could do no wrong, does this mark the moment when the tides of good will turn against him? And, more importantly, will Harris recover—or is his career "smurfed?"
Harris first became famous in the early '90s playing the precocious child wunderkind Doogie Howser, a teenager struggling through his growing pains while maintaining his career as a licensed physician. When the series ended, Harris found himself unable to shake the career-debilitating "aw, you were Doogie!" recognition while toiling through small guest roles and the occasional ill-fated sitcom before finding a well-suited home on stage in musicals like Rent, Cabaret, and Assassins. But a hilarious cameo in the stoner odyssey Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle in 2004, in which Harris played an exaggeratedly macho version of himself, became the unlikely vehicle that put the actor back on the map in Hollywood.
How I Met Your Mother premiered on CBS in 2005 to kind, if not totally positive, reviews. Harris, however, was unanimously hailed as the sitcom's breakout star, playing catchphrase-coining, womanizing lothario Barney Stinson. For its first several seasons, the series remained as what's called a "bubble show," meaning its merely fine ratings, fanbase, and critical reception put it in constant danger of being canceled. But Harris's popularity grew. A starring role in the online miniseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, which reached cult status, won him the rabid Comic-Con fanbase. He landed a gig emceeing the TV Land Awards, and then a higher-profile, perfectly suited spot as host of the 2009 Tony Awards. Meanwhile, How I Met Your Mother's stature grew, and the show now counts as a long-running, well-performing staple of CBS's comedy lineup.
As for Harris, his self-deprecating charm, quick wit, sly smile, and constant professionalism won him a legion of fans in the industry. His successful Tony Awards hosting performance parlayed into more increasingly prestigious gigs, including emcee at the 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards and star of the opening number at the 2010 Oscars. "Host With the Most"—though a tired, cliched label—was quickly applied to Harris, who became Hollywood's most beloved master of ceremonies since Billy Crystal. He received four Emmy nominations for his role on How I Met Your Mother and actually won two Emmy awards, for guest acting on Glee and hosting the Tonys.
Coming out as openly gay in 2006, Harris is in some respects a Hollywood revolutionary, the go-to proof that out actors can maintain acting careers that aren't defined by their sexuality. That his popularity only surged after coming out, even in parts of America where such a thing would seem unlikely, has opened doors for other gay actors. Now that same-sex marriage was legalized in New York, where Harris lives, anticipation for him to marry his fiance David Burtka rivals that of any straight A-listers, and the wedding photos essentially have a reserved spot on the cover of People if and when the event happens.
Harris' transition to a film career, however, has been less successful. He escaped relatively unharmed from this winter's critically-panned Beauty and the Beast re-telling, Beastly, but the kind of reviewer-ravaging that The Smurfs received isn't easy to dodge. But was Harris, Mr. Likability, doomed from the get-go? CGI cartoons have a history of becoming blights on popular actors' careers, with the likes of Garfield, Scooby Doo, and the Cat in the Hat bringing down some of Hollywood's most likable personalities.
When Garfield was released in 2004, Bill Murray's career was hotter than ever, after being showered with praise for his Academy Award-nominated performance in Lost in Translation. Then a lasagna-addicted cat scarfed up all his good buzz. Murray, who voiced the movie's titular fat feline, followed-up the film with quietly brilliant roles in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Broken Flowers, but failed to receive the kinds of awards love that typically follow an actor who wins the kind of industry goodwill Murray had following Translation. That may not be directly caused by Garfield, but suffice it to say that the critically reviled film—and it's sequel, to boot—are undeniable sore thumbs on a resume that includes the aforementioned flicks, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and last year's criminally under-seen drama Get Low. Murray, to his credit, knows that the film was a mistake. Playing himself in 2009's Zombieland, a character asked if he had any regrets. "Garfield, maybe," he replied.
When Sarah Michelle Gellar appeared in the awful live-action Scooby-Doo, she was finishing up her run on the massively popular, critically beloved, and now iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With the show's final season still ahead of her, she manged to rise from the ashes of critics' fiery takedown of Doo, before tempting fate again by starring once more as Daphne in its sequel. Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed, not-so-shockingly, was as unloved as its predecessor. Gellar's film career, despite a promising turn in the horror hit The Grudge has failed to take off since, with movies like Southland Tales and The Air I Breathe neither hits with critics or audiences.
Whether it's Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo in the ill-timed Yogi Bear at the height of his Oscar campaign for The Social Network or Mike Myers' arguably career-ruining turn in The Cat in the Hat, these animated—or live-action hybrids—have a history of stopping forward career momentum cold. Even when these films perform well at the box office—The Smurfs, for example, took in $36 million this weekend—they side-track what should be breakout moments for many of these actors. While many of them have gone on to maintain solid careers, these films remain long-running jokes when their legacies are discussed.
The question with Harris is how much harm Smurfs will do. If anything, The Smurfs proves that he-who-was-Doogie is not made of critical teflon, and will to start being a little choosier with his film projects—otherwise his red-hot career will decidedly start turning, well, blue.