Smurfs at 50: Ready for a Comeback

The first definitive design for a Smurf. i i

The first definitive design for a Smurf — or "Schtroumpf," as he called it — drawn by Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford, known as "Peyo," in 1958. Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S. hide caption

itoggle caption Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S.
The first definitive design for a Smurf.

The first definitive design for a Smurf — or "Schtroumpf," as he called it — drawn by Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford, known as "Peyo," in 1958.

Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S.
An image from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon "The Smurfs." i i

The Hanna-Barbera cartoon starring the Smurfs hit the American airwaves in 1981. Courtesy I.M.P.S. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy I.M.P.S.
An image from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon "The Smurfs."

The Hanna-Barbera cartoon starring the Smurfs hit the American airwaves in 1981.

Courtesy I.M.P.S.
A panel from Peyo's comic "The Smurf Financier." i i

Click 'Enlarge' to see a panel from Peyo's comic The Smurf Financier. Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S. hide caption

itoggle caption Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S.
A panel from Peyo's comic "The Smurf Financier."

This panel, showing Cook Smurf presenting a dinner of sarsaparilla souffle and mushroom omelet, was included in the final album Peyo completed before his death in 1992. The Smurf struggling to ask for the salt shaker is reprising the scenario that led to the Smurfs' name. Peyo once used a made-up word, "schtroumpf," to ask a friend for the salt shaker, and he thought it would fit his new creation.

Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S.
A sketch Peyo made in 1945 for a cartoon film. i i

A sketch Peyo made in 1945 for a cartoon film shows some resemblance to what would eventually become the Smurfs. Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S. hide caption

itoggle caption Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S.
A sketch Peyo made in 1945 for a cartoon film.

A sketch Peyo made in 1945 for a cartoon film shows some resemblance to what would eventually become the Smurfs.

Peyo/Courtesy I.M.P.S.
Children paint Smurf figurines in Berlin. i i

Children paint Smurf figurines during a January event in Berlin to celebrate the Smurfs' 50th anniversary. The figurines will be tied into a fundraising campaign for UNICEF. Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images
Children paint Smurf figurines in Berlin.

Children paint Smurf figurines during a January event in Berlin to celebrate the Smurfs' 50th anniversary. The figurines will be tied into a fundraising campaign for UNICEF.

Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images

What ever happened to the Smurfs?

Even those who didn't watch television couldn't escape their influence on youth culture, vocabulary and joke-telling. The Smurfs took America by storm in the 1980s with a cartoon series that won Emmys along with fans, as little blue imps laughed and played in their idyllic mushroom village, always a wee step ahead of the villainous Gargamel.

But it came to a stop in the early '90s, when the Smurfs' human guardians decided the American market was getting oversaturated. So they brought the Smurfs home to their Belgian birthplace.

The Smurfs began life in a comic strip created 50 years ago by Pierre Culliford, a Belgian cartoonist. So are they having a mid-life crisis? Au contraire! They are planning a comeback. The original series soon will be out on DVD and a 3-D movie is expected next year.

But can they succeed? Unlike their '80s-era forebears, kids these days can play virtual tennis and drive virtual race cars — even steal them! — on their TVs. It's hard to imagine them being mesmerized by cutesy little creatures endlessly repairing their mushroom houses or picking flowers in the forest. But that's not something that worries Hendrik Coysman, the man in charge of global marketing for the Smurfs.

"People like simple things because we're living in such a complicated, confused world," he says. "It's so hectic. The Smurf village can be a good place to rest for a couple of minutes or hours."

Reaction to the Smurfs' relaunch may already be proving him right. Kickoff events in Paris, Brussels and Berlin spawned sentimental news stories all over the world about the "Pitufo" in Spain, the "Nam Ching Ling" in China and the "Dardassim" in Israel.

Children in Berlin did seem to be impressed with the simple life of the creatures they know as "Schlumpfe."

"The Smurfs build all sorts of things for themselves, bridges and things like that," says 8-year-old Harun Sariustan.

"My favorite Smurf always has a pencil over his ear. He writes stories," shares 9-year-old Marlene Hunger.

But there have been detractors over the years. Some Americans felt the Smurfs' communal village depicted a "communist utopia." Others just felt it was too sickeningly sweet.

But the most frequent complaint has been about the male-female ratio and gender roles. Papa Smurf makes all the big decisions, while lovely Smurfette, the most prominent of just three females, does little more than run around in high heels and look pretty.

Coysman says the Smurfs' world is getting a birthday makeover — acknowledging it needed one.

"If you look at our society, there has been a dramatic change in the social and cultural environment, so we are thinking in that direction," he says.

Most details of the changes are still secret, except for the fact that Smurfette will finally be getting some female company.

The Smurfs also are hoping to have an effect outside their mushroom village. They have teamed up with UNICEF to raise money and awareness to help other little beings whose lives in the real world aren't all so ... well, smurfy.

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