Smurf you, you little Commie bastards. They are cute, though. Warner Bros.―just in time to soak up some of the promotional hype for the big-screen Smurf movie―has released The Smurfs: A Magical Smurf Adventure, a two-disc, ten-show compilation of randomly-selected episodes from the iconic NBC Saturday morning classic's 1982 sophomore season. To each his own on these herky-jerky last hurrah Hanna-Barbera efforts, but I can assure you: even little kids who have never seen this show instantly fall in love with it. Go figure. A couple of short featurettes are an added bonus here for this release.
The Cursed Country, Middle Ages, Belgium, probably. In a tucked-away little glen in the forest, little blue Smurfs, three apples high, live and toil away in a primitive, rustic toadstool village. Comrade General Papa Smurf, complete with egghead beard and festooned in Commie red to reinforce the notion of a serious blood-letting should any free-thinking Smurf dare to question his imperious orders, lays down the communal law, demanding from each Smurf according to his ability, to each Smurf according to his need. So that means Brainy stays brainy, Vanity traipses around staring into a mirror, and Smurfette primps for the men―none of them lifting a finger to work―while Hefty and Greedy Farmer Smurf bust their asses "for the common good." It's a regular Utopia of frustrated dreams and ambitions and crushing compartmentalization. Human adventurer Johan and his trusted sidekick Peewee have no such socio-political restrictions on their lives; their exploits are driven by Johan's outmoded, decadent Western notions of chivalry and honor...while villainous Gargamel and his stooge cat Azrael plot the destruction of the innocent, peace-loving Smurfs with the imperialistic zeal reserved only for greedy capitalist pigs.
When the Smurfs premiered on NBC's Saturday morning cartoon line-up back in 1981, I had just started high school, so I completely missed the boat as to the show's enormous following. I was still catching some cartoons back then...on the sly, of course, but during those days, no one over 12 admitted that they still watched stuff like the superior Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes shorts or the surreal DePatie-Freleng Pink Panthers or the goofily-fun Filmation efforts on Saturday morning TV (times have changed, haven't they?). And certainly the Smurfs seemed at first and last glance aimed strictly for the littlest kiddies; the only high schoolers I knew who referenced the little blue people were the girls who watched it as a hoot because the Smurfs were "cute" (like the high school craze some years back for the juvenile-oriented Hello Kitty).
Watching the show today, frankly, I don't get its appeal at all. Yes, the little bastards are kinda cute and squeaky as they move around their little toadstool hell, but so are mice...and mice are vermin. "Cuteness" lasts for about five minutes in the cartoon world, and then you start looking around for a good gag, or a funny line, or a bit of business that's at least mildly diverting or entertaining, and yet they're nowhere to be found here (and don't even think of looking for artestry in the crude, ugly, limited animation here). What's high-pitched and somewhat adorable rapidly becomes grating and repetitious and dull. I'll laugh at anything: My Mother the Car, Mr. T and Tina, Holmes and Yoyo, Melissa and Joey, the complete oeuvre of Matt Damon. But not once did I laugh, chuckle or even titter during the entire ten episodes here of the Smurfs. Nothing. A complete blank. Even the voice of favorite Paul Winchell did nothing for me, because he has nothing to work with here: the yocks are non-existent.
And then it gets messagy. For example, in Revenge of the Smurfs, Papa Smurf laments how humans are always going to war, and in Gormandizing Greedy, he forces the happy-but-Type 2 Diabetic Greedy to go on a diet, making him leave behind his beloved pies because the State knows better than the individual. Lots of theories have been put forth as to why traditional Saturday morning cartoons and live-action shows eventually disappeared from the network line-ups, but the answer is very simple: they cut the laughs and action and constant cross-promotional efforts in favor of teaching. And once kids smelled out this covert progaganda to indoctrinate them, they turned off their sets in droves. They just had five days of lessons and lectures during the school week―why the hell would they want more on their day off? They wanted explosions and belly-laughs and slapstick mayhem while they stared slack-jawed at their 26-inch Curtis-Mathis. And if those animated experiences could be infinitely replicated through product tie-ins, all the better. Now of course, the Smurfs series was incredibly popular for years, and the franchise continues to generate billions of dollars in merchandising, but it's the exception that proves the rule: when the networks continued to cave to the pressure groups, they cut the heart out of fun Saturday morning TV. And ironically, the super-successful Smurfs is a perfect example of that end result: a bland, monstrously "safe" cartoon, amplified by possibly animation's most moronic theme song, with almost nothing to recommend it.
But then, what do I know? I sat down with my littlest kids to watch the The Smurfs: A Magical Smurf Adventure and they loved it. Loved it. Is it because they put themselves in the Smurfs place? Always beleaguered, always small and ready to be stepped on by bigger, clumsier oafs? Always running around jabbering nonsensically? Or is it because they look on them like little pets, too cute for words, while they possibly fantasize about finding a similar-such village of three apples-high blue gnomes...and ruling over them with a combination of indulgent paternalism and stark terror (okay, that last one was mine)? Who knows? I tried to get a coherent answer out of them why they wanted to watch more and more Smurfs, but they're little kids―they don't know what the hell they're talking about. "It's funny." "It's good." "I like the cat." "They're blue," were about all I got. Granted, those bullet points put them about on par with Ebert, but it's not much help in getting to the basic appeal of the show.
Or maybe it is just that simple. For them.
Here are the ten episodes, all from Season Two, of The Smurfs: A Magical Smurf Adventure:
Smurf Van Winkle
Revenge of the Smurfs
The Magic Fountain
Smurf Me No Flowers
The Cursed Country
The Blue Plague
The Ring of Castellac
A Mere Truffle
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.