The SmarK DVD Rant for The Smurfs Season One, Volume One

Available at Amazon.com
“Stop it! Stop it! You’re all behaving like human beings!”

– Papa Smurf lays down the law, from “King Smurf”.

Ah, The Smurfs. The people who produce these things certainly know that there’s a large nostalgia audience of Gen-Xers like myself who grew up watching the little blue communists every Saturday morning like clockwork. Annoyingly, the problem faced with these releases is not the content, but the presentation. In this case, the dreaded “Volume One” means that they’re splitting up the seasons into “kid-friendly” $20 sets so they can milk the buyer twice instead of just doing one four-disc set for the same price and getting it over with. I really hate that and it’s especially annoying because they’re using single-layer discs and could probably fit all the content on this first set onto one disc.

But enough about that.

The Show

Created by French artist Peyo for a Belgian magazine way back in 1958, the Smurfs became something of a sensation to tacky art collectors everywhere with a series of PVC figures depicting all the characters of the comics. Personally I owned about 20 of them before the TV series ever launched.

The concept of the Smurfs (and the show) is one you probably already know if you’re interested enough in them to read this review, but we’ll go over it again just in case. Somewhere, long ago in a forest sometime in the Middle Ages, there’s a village of little blue creatures three apples high called Smurfs. They’re good. Gargamel, the evil wizard, is bad.

OK, that’s simplifying things to the introduction from the show, but it’s really all you need to know. Beyond that, the show is a very clever political allegory at times (not as clever or allegorical as the original comics, but pretty clever nonetheless), but some people might be bothered by the fairly overt communist leanings of the show. To be fair, we’re not talking about “Da comrade” communism, but the ideal put forth by Marx where everyone takes only what they need and everyone contributes what they’re suited for. To really make this idea an overt one, all the characters are as one-dimensional as they can get — the brainy one is named Brainy Smurf, the strong one is Hefty Smurf, the chubby one is Greedy Smurf, etc. Generally the characters are divided into three types: Skilled Labor or Ability (Handy, Harmony, Tailor, Farmer), Personality (Jokey, Greedy, Grouchy, Lazy, Brainy, Dreamy) and Societal Role (Papa, Grampa, Baby, Smurfette). While Peyo’s original stories drove the conflict from within the group much of the time, things needed to be simplified into an evil stereotype for the cartoon, so we get the evil wizard Gargamel (who, to be fair, appears to be more of an alchemist) in a much more expanded role than he had in the original comics. Does he want to eat them or turn them into gold? Depends on which episode you watch, but that’s part of the charm, I guess.

Anyway, this set covers from the first season from 1981, and to show how deeply ingrained this show was in my childhood, watching these again I could STILL recite entire chunks of shows I hadn’t seen in 25 years or more, in vivid detail. I think that shows how simple, but effective, the writing on these early adventures was. The actual shows are distributed kind of strangely, as the actual stories vary anywhere from 8-20 minutes, and the episodes that result from grouping 1-3 of them together are anywhere from 20-60 minutes long. So although there’s only 9 episodes of the show on this set, it’s listed as 19 because each one is made up of multiple segments. I can’t remember so far back that I can say for sure if it was a 30 or 60 minute show on NBC all those years ago.

The first season, although cruder and with a smaller cast than the more expanded universe that was to follow, has some of the best-loved episodes and introduces many of the running jokes that made the show so charming. Some of the best ones include:

– Brainy Smurf mouthing off one time too many and getting tossed out of the village and onto his head.

– The classic “Is it much further, Papa Smurf?” / “Not far now…” bit that gets riffed on and rearranged over the years.

– Grouchy’s hatred of EVERYTHING.

That being said, there’s a lot of stuff missing that might throw off longtime fans, like the whole royal family of humans, but everything else was in place right from the start. And also in place was the show’s constant use of classical music in a time when everything was cheaply-produced synth soundtracks, which is another way that it has remained timeless. Heck, I watched a few of these with a four-year old, and he was transfixed through the whole thing, so that’s good enough for me.

Volume One contains the first nine episodes of the show, although I’m not sure if it’s in broadcast or production order because the introduction of Big Mouth comes after he’s already made his first formal appearance, but here’s how it’s laid out:

Disc One

1. The Smurf’s Apprentice / The Smurfette / Vanity Fare. The first one is a lesson in tolerance of others, as Clumsy decides to better himself by learning magic and becoming Papa Smurf’s apprentice, whether Papa likes it or not. Unfortunately, he turns himself into a lizard, as the Faustian deal-gone-wrong theme ran through a LOT of the early episodes. The Smurfette is of course self-explanatory and a classic, as Gargamel creates an evil female Smurf to bewitch our heroes but gets the tables turned on him. Vanity and his love of mirrors highlight the third one (another theme that would repeat) as Gargamel uses an evil mirror to almost catch the Smurfs again.

2. King Smurf / The Astrosmurf / Jokey’s Medicine. King Smurf is probably my second-favorite episode ever, after The Purple Smurfs (sadly missing from this volume), and it features Brainy deciding to seize power when Papa Smurf is absent. The results are not only pretty darn funny, but have an entirely deeper meaning when you consider how anti-monarchy this show was. Sadly the episode doesn’t delve into the politics as deeply as the original comic did, but it’s still pretty good stuff. Astrosmurf is more of the whimsy that this show did so well, as Dreamy REALLY wants to fly to the stars, so the Smurfs make it happen, sort of. The manufactured drama here with Gargamel only drags it down a bit and wasn’t needed, but I understand why they did it. Jokey’s Medicine is a bit of “two wrongs don’t make a right” with the other Smurfs trying to get back at Jokey for his exploding boxes and ending up prisoners of Gargamel as a result. Definitely a strong show in total.

3. St. Smurf and the Dragon / Sorcerer Smurf. The dragon episode is another one where I remember everything vividly, as Smurfette befriends a klutzy young dragon, who sadly gets uses as a pawn by Gargamel in his vendetta with our blue heroes. The other one sees Gargamel playing on Brainy’s need to be right all the time, luring them into a DEATHTRAP (OK, not really) by imitating the mysterious, ancient Sorcerer Smurf.

4. The Smurfs and the Howlibird. This is a full-episode story, again about the dangers of messing with stuff that ought not to be messed with (in this case, genetically altering living creatures, veiled in the world of magic potions), as a plant growth formula gone bad accidentally turns a young bird into a killing machine with a REALLY annoying screechy voice.

Disc Two

1. The Magical Meanie / Bewitched, Bothered & Besmurfed. The first one is fairly interesting because it turns the concept of a heroic genie on its side and presents a genie who is an insufferable, selfish jerk. C’mon, hands up, who watched this one and instantly remembered the magic words again? I know you’re out there. The second one introduces the evil witch Hogatha, who loses her magic amulet to Smurfette and produces havoc in the village as a result. I really liked the wit shown here, as the magic amulet takes her wishes LITERALLY (like when she wants Greedy to be “fit as a fiddle”). Remember kids, if a witch or wizard offers you a magic talisman, make sure to tell your local authority figure, DON’T try to use it yourself.

2. Smurf Colored Glasses / Dreamy’s Nightmare. Another theme is introduced with the Smurfs vying for the affections of Smurfette, in this case Handy messing with magic and creating rose-colored glasses that act as beer goggles for Smurfette and of course getting everyone in trouble as a result. The second one sees Dreamy continuing his quest to explore outside of the Village by going on a walkabout of sorts…until Gargamel captures him. Man, the messages about staying tied to the land are really quite overt.

3. Fuzzle Trouble / Soup a la Smurf. The first one is pretty much an homage (aka ripoff) of Star Trek’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”, although their solution to the problem is a little less violent and a little more ironic. The second one is the formal introduction of ogre Big Mouth, who storms into the Village demanding a meal and ends up as Gargamel’s #1 tormentor.

4. All That Glitters Isn’t Smurf / Romeo & Smurfette. More lessons as Papa Smurf has a rough time perfecting a formula and everyone jumps to the conclusion that he’s losing his powers. This is one of the first times when Gargamel decides to use the Smurfs for gold instead of food, and his motivation varies from episode-to-episode here onwards. The second one sees Smurfette hypnotized by Gargamel yet again (another recurring plot), taking advantage of horny Smurfs to trigger a war between Handy and Hefty, complete with duelling serenades and fistfights. Totally worth it for the wonderfully awful songs they come up with to woo her.

5. The Hundredth Smurf / Smurphony in ‘C’. Back to the original Peyo stories, as Vanity and his mirrors get him into trouble, with a handmade mirror creating the Reflection Smurf, who talks and moves backwards. The other story sees Harmony trying to get into Papa’s big symphony but driving everyone off with his horrible playing, until a magic horn from Gargamel seems to help his cause. But only seems to. There’s that “don’t mess with magic” theme again.

So while I was a bit sad that The Purple Smurfs was left for another volume (Gnap!), there’s still more than enough of my other favourites here to smurf my inner smurf for a few smurfs. Oh damn, now I’m smurfing like them, too. Better smurf this smurf up.

Oh, lovely. This is what cartoon releases should look like, as Warner and Hanna-Barbera have lovingly restored this cartoon to its former brilliance, seemingly frame by frame. For the best example of what they’ve done, watch the un-restored bonus episode Springtime Special and compare to any other episode and you’ll be blown away. Blues are BRIGHT blue and the whites of their outfits are dazzling, and all traces of grain and scratches on the original prints have been cleaned up almost to the point where it looks like broadcast new again. In fact, since I didn’t have an LCD TV in 1981, it’s almost certainly about 100x nicer than what I remember it being. Top marks here.

Well, in the spirit of fully restoring and archiving the classic show, it’s in Dolby Mono, which means only the center channel is used. That’s fine and all, but I wish that given how much they could compress with only one audio channel they had put more episodes on each disc.

Nothing really for bonus material here. You get the prime time Springtime Special episode, where they battle Gargamel’s godfather Balthazar, and a minute long “music video” featuring the theme song and clips from the show, but there’s no featurettes or commentaries or behind-the-scenes material at all. Pretty disappointing, but I guess they’re aiming squarely at the pre-school crowd here instead of going with the nostalgia group like the He-Man releases have been doing. More’s the pity.

Still as high quality as the day it was produced, The Smurfs is essential for every disenchanted Gen-X slacker who longs for childhood again, or for those with kids who want something witty and well-written instead of the crap on Nickelodeon these days. Highest recommendation.

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The Show: *****

The Video: *****

The Audio: **

The Extras: **

Warner Bros. Home Video presents The Smurfs: Season One, Volume One. Running time: 345 minutes. Not rated. Released on DVD: February 26, 2008. Available at Amazon.com