Although it's not a regular part of my freelance writing work, every once in awhile I have reviewed videos in the past for The Oregonian and, before that, Willamette Week. They usually seem to wind up being releases I already had some kind of personal taste for or guilty-pleasure attachment to.
A few years ago, for example, I wrote a loving ode to Top Gun upon a "special edition" DVD release, admitting all the while that it was the most vacant kind of cheesy action movie but one with plenty of enjoyment, depending on one's attitude and, if you're the right age to have watched it as a teen like I was, a good dose of nostalgia. More recently, I reviewed a volume in the ongoing Looney Tunes "Golden Collection" series of DVDs. It was a chance to have a take not only on those cartoons within the disc, but also to wax about the genius of Warner Brothers cartoons made between roughly World War II and Vietnam.
I'm on an email list to receive press releases from a couple different video labels like WB. And today, for some reason, I found myself surprisingly susceptible to news of "The Smurfs: The Complete First Season" being released on DVD.
"The Smurfs" cartoon series was on a lot during my childhood. Yet I never considered myself a fan. It seemed too wimpy for my taste. No explosions! Not even anyone falling off a cliff! But as an unequivocally devoted Child of Television, I watched "The Smurfs" a lot anyway. Because that's what cartoon was on at that time of day. If it was a morning before school, an afternoon afterward, or a Saturday morning between about 7AM and noon, I was dutifully watching TV. And the preference was always for cartoons. Only a couple old live-action sitcoms in rerun syndication like The Brady Bunch or (to a lesser extent) Gilligan's Island could compare.
Staring at this press release about the Smurf DVD today, I'd like to think it was with more of a nostalgia-free lens than usual, because I have never yearned to be watching that cartoon again. I mean, it's actually one of the only children's cartoons from the era of my own childhood that seems weird and almost downright creepy to think about. (Strawberry Shortcake might also fit that definition, come to think of it.) Who are these Smurfs, anyway, with their blue skin and their replacement of every other word with their own name?
For some reason I can't completely put my finger on, there's something so downright surreal about The Smurfs that I find myself drawn to it in a deer-in-the-headlights kind of way. There's something so banal about the show, particularly the cartoon, yet it also had just enough of a fairy-tale theme that it could vaguely tap into our pre-existing notion of that kind of Hansel & Gretel world existing somewhere uncharted out there in the forest. Maybe because of that forest and the mixture of weirdness with banality, The Smurfs almost feel Lynchian.
Which was why, on a whim, I requested a reviewer's copy of the DVD and happened to look up "The Smurfs" on Wikipedia. Surprisingly, the Smurfs actually have much longer of a history than I would have thought. What's next, some kind of ancient Pac-Man game played in the dirt by Druids?
The Smurfs (originally Les Schtroumpfs in French) are a fictional group of small sky blue creatures who live somewhere in the forests of medieval Europe. The Belgian cartoonist Peyo introduced Smurfs to the world in a series of comic strips, making their first appearance in the Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou on October 23, 1958.
At the time, Peyo created a Franco-Belgian comics series in Le Journal de Spirou titled Johan et Pirlouit (translated to English as Johan and Peewit), set in Europe during the Middle Ages. Johan serves as a brave young page to the king, and Pirlouit (pronounced Peer-Loo-ee) functions as his faithful, if boastful and cheating, midget sidekick.
Johan and Peewit had the mission of recovering a Magic Flute, which required some sorcery by the wizard Homnibus. And in this manner, they met a tiny, blue-skinned humanoid creature in white clothing called a "Schtroumpf", followed by his numerous peers who looked just like him, with an elderly leader who wore red clothing and a beard. The characters proved to be a huge success, and the first independent Smurf stories appeared in Spirou in 1959, together with the first merchandising.
"Schtroumpf" is an invented word. The pronunciation of "Schtroumpf" in French is quite similar to the German word "Strumpf" (English "sock"), but there is no indication that this is more than a coincidence.
According to Peyo, the word came to him as he asked André Franquin for "salt" during lunch and, struggling to find the word that eluded him, finally managed to say "passe-moi le schtroumpf" ("pass me the smurf"). It would later be translated into nearly 30 languages and, in some of those languages, "Schtroumpf" became "Smurf" (see The Smurfs in other languages). The word "Smurf" was first used in Dutch, as the comics were simultaneously published in French (in Spirou magazine) and Dutch (in Robbedoes, the Dutch translation of the magazine).
The storylines tend to be simple tales of bold adventure. The cast has a simple structure as well: almost all the characters look essentially alike — male, very short (just "three apples tall"), with blue skin, white trousers with a hole for their short tails, white hat in the style of a Phrygian cap, and sometimes some additional accessory that identifies their personality. (For instance, Handy Smurf wears overalls instead of the standard trousers, a brimmed hat, and a pencil above his ear). Smurfs can walk and run, but often move by skipping on both feet. They love to eat smilax leaves, whose berries the smurfs naturally call smurfberries (the smurfberries appear only in the cartoon, in the original comics, the Smurfs only eat the leaves from the smilax).
The male Smurfs almost never appear without their hats, which leaves a mystery amongst the fans as to whether they have hair or not.
Of course, here in America we got a much more sanitized, antiseptic version of these characters and stories. But that's somehow part of what intrigues me now. The Smurfs have always had an arresting visual look because of their simplicity and sameness: white legs and hat, blue torso, repeated in every one of them except a select few male Smurfs and of course the lone "Smurfette". Can you imagine, by the way, being the lone woman in a Medieval village, surrounded by males? No wonder NBC sanitized the cartoon.
Somehow it just figures that The Smurfs were created by a French-speaking European. It's something about the look: it's as if knickers or liederhosen are somehow implied. The Smurfs definitely are more plausible as Belgians than as Americans.
But then again, as an American in love with traveling outside the country, maybe that inherent foreignness is what attracts me. Maybe in some crazy way the Smurfs represent the desire to get out of my comfort zone once in awhile and experience people who look different from myself.
Then again, though, to intellectualize too much about these little blue cartoon characters seems like total mother-smurfing bullsmurf.