Well don’t that Smurf all! The Smurfs turn fifty this year.
Belgian cartoonist Peyo created the Smurfs decades before they became a hit American cartoon. His Smurfs, though, often lampooned European society in sharp, biting satire, rather than the dog-and-pony tripe that was trotted out to US kids for nearly a decade. And yet the success of the Smurfs poured money into his pockets, allowing him the latitude to continue drawing comics about the Belgian political parties or chocolate or waffles or soccer or whatever it is that’s important in Brussels.
It might be a bit presumptuous to celebrate fifty years already; the first Smurf appeared in 1958, and was pretty much a walk-on; they languished as tertiary, Stephen-Baldwin level characters until their popularity grew too big to ignore. Yet there has to be a starting place somewhere, and so the Smurfs look gazingly wistful at that AARP letter they just got in the mail.
The Smurfs had quite a lot of influence on the children of the ‘80s, from their optimistically Reaganesque la-LA-la-la-la-laaaa to their unique cognitive failures at subject-verb transposition. Very few children, aside from those whose parents erroneously thought that watching television would turn them into mindless intellectual wastelands who honestly believe that the single greatest cultural achievement of Western Civilization lies somewhere along the spectrum of Knight Rider and go-go-Gadget-mallet, won’t immediately recognize the various trials and tribulations of Gargamel, Azrael, and all the Smurfs whose parents lacked a certain level of creativity, naming them after random adjectives that, in the cruel execution of a social more that being baked into gold can only parallel, they were destined to fulfill. One wonders whether Lazy Smurf’s father bothered to start a college fund or not.
Of course, whether Smurfs had parents or not has befuddled scores upon scores of high college students and Donnie Darko fans. With only Smurfette of child-bearing age and ability, yet showing no signs of mommy hips, one has to assume a rather prolific bait-and-switch game is being played by someone, somewhere. Best not to ask questions, Papa Smurf says, and, besides, their DNA is corrupted beyond any hope of positive identification.
Watching the series as an adult, of course, is a recipe for disappointment. Catching them on some basement dwelling basic cable station at three in the morning, I was shocked at how painful the shrill voices were and how repetitively dull the dialogue was. I was shocked—shocked!—when, after extensive research on the Internet Movie Database, I found out that more than one person voiced all the different Smurfs, even though it sounds like they’re all voiced by some guy who just inhaled a combination of helium, Red Bull, and crystal meth. And, while hardly unique amongst Saturday morning cartoons, where quality control and script-writing are apparently farmed out to what I will charitably call completely retarded idiots who eat lead for breakfast and routinely watch House Hunters, the episodes were derivative and only buoyed by what I’m going to call charm but know full well is simply nostalgia.
And so help the viewer who happens to catch an episode featuring Pee-wee or Johan. I cry deeply for your soul.
Of course, the Smurfs have not been without controversy. More than one casual observer, and by causal observer I mean “the entire staff of the National Review,” have drawn the obvious parallels between the Smurf village and a textbook communist society. Defenders of the Smurfs counter with the fact that it’s just a children’s show. “Sure,” they say, “The Smurfs live in a communal village were work is shared by all and there is no means of currency and Papa Smurf acts as an executive director with unchecked power over the economic well-being of the community and he wears red and all Smurfs have a de facto uniform to minimize their differences and each episode has a lesson about from each according to his ability and to each according to his need and there is a bronze statue of Joseph Stalin in the village square, but, c’mon, it’s just a cartoon.”
Another criticism is the reliance on magic and alchemy. Part of this is simply the usual Harry Potter cranks assuming that the Smurfs, in conjunction with day care centers and the Catholic Church, are trying to indoctrinate our children into believing in fantasies and fairy tales. The bigger criticism should be lazy logical thinking—if there’s a problem, just crack open the alchemist cookbook and whip up a batch of anti-there’s-a-problem-in-the-village serum. At least the existence of Gargamel, an old, powerful nemesis that fills the Smurfs with a near-constant fear of torment and death, injects a healthy dose of how the real world works.
Still, the Smurfs presented a generation of children with a little bit of the best of all worlds. An escapist tale—no one is going to confuse blue midgets in tukes for Johannesburg. Riyadh, or Watts, though some may latently suspect Stonewall—that teaches good manners and kindness to others. Given the other messages the entertainment industry doles out to kids nowadays—“You are smarter than your parents,” “Acting loud and obnoxiously goofy in public is a virtue,” and “You should plan your entire educational experience on the 1 in 40,000,000 chance you’ll be selected to perform on American Idol”—it’s not so bad of an idea. And, at the very least, at least they’re better than the Snorks.