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

(Note: The first part of this review is taken from my original review of Volume 1)

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 Two” which 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. The original shows were an hour long and even in the first season they would replay a LOT of the segments from earlier episodes, usually only producing a new one every couple of weeks.

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.

Disc One

1. The Magic Egg. Gargamel develops a golden wish-granting egg in his neverending quest to eat or destroy the Smurfs depending on the episode, but puts it on the ledge to cool and loses it to the boundary-challenged ogre Big Mouth. The Smurfs end up with it, and it’s yet another in a series of lessons about how messing with magic you shouldn’t be messing with ends up being a bad thing, and how absolute power corrupts absolutely. You can interchange that lesson in a lot of episodes, actually.

2. Smurfette’s Dancing Shoes. A feature-length episode this time, as an imp wants treasure, but is prevented by a curse that requires either three rare items, or the hand of a fair maiden in marriage. I don’t know where they come up with these plots either. Anyway, Smurfette wants to dance for Papa Smurf’s birthday, but she’s a terrible dancer and doesn’t want to practice. So this somehow leads to the imp giving her magic shoes and then kidnapping her until the Smurfs retrieve his items for him. The lesson of course is that you have to practice, or else get kidnapped by an imp, I guess.

3. Supersmurf/The Baby Smurf. More trouble with magic, as Brainy gets sick of not having the brawn to go with his intellect, and uses Papa Smurf’s off-limits magic book to turn himself into Supersmurf. As usual, the shortcut proves to be more trouble than it’s worth. Next up, Gargamel turns him into a rather ugly baby Smurf and proceeds to sabotage the village, although later they’d introduce a real baby Smurf into continuity.

4. The Fake Smurf/Paradise Smurfed. And already another Smurf-saboteur story, as Hogatha turns herself into Snorty Smurf and we get some sly comments on the silly conceits of the series from her perspective (like not being able to understand the Smurf-laden speech patterns) and some ineffective sabotage attempts. Next up, Lazy Smurf deals with his aversion to work by journeying to Paradise, where they meet hedonism god Bacchus and his cat, who look a lot like Gargamel and Azrael. Paradise ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and hard work is good, kids. Man, the socialist leanings of this show can be pretty blatant.

5. Sir Hefty. Another full-length episode. A dragon is running rampant and Hefty is obsessed with the idea of slaying him to protect the Village, but he falls under the wing of a loutish wannabe knight who probably has a barbed wire tattoo under his armor. And of course, cowardice is eventually exposed and good old-fashioned teamwork wins the day instead.

6. The Purple Smurfs/Haunted Smurf. Oh yeah! Considered by most to be the best segment of the first season, if not one of the best in the entire series, The Purple Smurfs is based on one of the original Smurfs comics, and it’s a rather more dark story than is usual for the series, like a zombie movie done in Smurfs style. A purple fly bites Lazy in the tail and transforms him into an infected purple Smurf (“Gnap! Gnap!”) and soon the entire population is overcome until it’s like something out of 28 Days Later. Things actually get pretty tense here with the extinction of the species looking possible at one point, and it still works 27 years later. No heavy-handed lesson here, either, which is nice. There was even controversy here as the original story was “The Black Smurfs” and they changed it for broadcast amidst fears of racism. Well, they DO wear white hoods. The other episode also tends to the darker side, as a fire destroys the food stores as winter breaks. The Smurfs have to abandon the Village and find a new home, which turns out to be a “haunted” castle. Luckily Papa Smurf doesn’t believe in ghosts (although he does believe in magic, so you’d think ghosts would be plausible too…) and it’s all a wacky misunderstanding in the end.

7. Sideshow Smurfs. Another full length one. Smurfette and Clumsy get smurfnapped by an evil circus owner, who is apparently so hard up for acts that he wants to train them as his main attractions. The story is pretty weak here and it feels like they included about 10 minutes of filler animation to pump up the running time to 23 minutes because there’s lots of scenes that could have easily been cut down or deleted entirely to speed up the pace. Gargamel getting involved picks things up a lot, luckily.

Disc Two

1. The Magnifying Mixture/Foul Weather Smurf. Yet another lesson about messing with magic you shouldn’t mess with, as Brainy steals Papa Smurf’s enlarging mixture while trying to beat a heatwave and turns Hefty into a giant as a result. Natural Smurf enhancement? His natural inclination is to go capture Gargamel, and of course that backfires spectacularly. Another one in a similar vein follows, as Handy invents a weather-smurfing machine that allows him to order up whatever weather he desires, but it’s never wise to mess with Mother Nature. Especially when Poet wants an ode to the sun and Farmer wants a downpour to water his vegetables. Pretty funny sight gags with the rapidly-changing weather here and everyone whining about whatever the current conditions are.

2. Painter and Poet. The Smurfs have trouble understanding the pretentious art of Painter and Poet, which give us some grown-up modern art humor (after painting Smurfette as the Mona Lisa, the other Smurfs complain that “she doesn’t smile like that”), and the misunderstood artists decide to run away to find somewhere where they’ll be appreciated. Papa organizes a rescue party, but he should look at the bright side — if they die, their artwork will be worth way more! Anyway, everyone (including Gargamel, of course) winds up on a deserted island together (although the recycling of background cells means it looks like the regular forest most of the time). Pretty funny stuff with Poet’s overblown prose and the endless milking of Painter’s faux-French accent (“What’s a few-el?”), plus a couple of Road Runner-esque sight gags courtesy of Painter.

3. The Abominable Snowbeast / Gargamel the Generous. Papa Smurf hurts his foot and needs an incredibly rare flower to bring down the swelling (like ice wouldn’t work just as well?), and wouldn’t you know that the party who gets sent to find it runs into a Yeti who wants to marry Smurfette because he’s lonely and misunderstood. Really, their problem would have been solved by someone telling Papa to put an ice pack on his foot and suck it up. Next up, Clumsy is sent to find rocks to keep him out of everyone’s hair, and instead he finds a cave full of shiny, diamond-like rocks. Gargamel discovers their new source of wealth and suddenly becomes the best friend to the Smurfs, and only Papa clues in on the game he’s playing.

4. Now You Smurf ‘Em, Now You Don’t / The Fountain of Smurf. A crystal ball left by trolls turns out to be, not surprisingly, bad news, sucking unsuspecting Smurfs into a life of slavery underground, but luckily trolls are dumb and Papa Smurf is smart. Next up, the Smurfs want to do something nice for Papa, so they find a book of his favourite things and try to assemble them all. This leads them to a fountain of youth, but you just know that this is going to be exactly the sort of thing that leads to a lesson about messing with fountains of youth. And sure enough, a newly youthful Papa unfortunately becomes TOO young, and something of a little brat at that. Then the episode justifies its 23 minute runtime when the Smurfs turn to Gargamel for help in stopping the troll who guards the Fountain, and restoring Papa Smurf. Of course he’s as useless as they count on, allowing the two evils to cancel out and the Smurfs to restore the status quo. Another really good one in a series of them this volume

5. Spelunking Smurfs / The Clockwork Smurf / The Smurfs and the Money Tree. A drought has wiped out all the food in the forest, but Vanity and Clumsy find a big frozen cave of food, which you’d think would sound SLIGHTLY suspicious. Turns out that it’s guarded by an ogre, which pays off for them when Gargamel tries to steal the food for himself and gets to experience the ogre’s punishment in turn. Being selfish is bad, you see. Next up, another classic, as Handy tires of chores cutting into leisure time, so he invents the Clockwork Smurf to do their work for them. You just know there’s a communist message about the evils of technology coming up. And sure enough, Brainy screws him up and it’s a rampaging robot as a result, leading to him being cast out on his own for a solo adventure. And so we get our first brush with Prince Gerard, as Clockwork rescues him from a Man in the Iron Mask fate and allows him to take the throne as King Gerard with some Smurf help. They would both return as recurring characters in the next season and beyond, of course. Finally, the season closes with Gargamel’s equally-evil mother coming to visit and wanting to tempt at least Smurf with greed. In this case, Greedy (duh), as he gives out magic treats shaped like gold coins in exchange for the Smurfs’ prized possessions. OK, seriously, an episode preaching the evils of currency? Rather ironic considering the merchandising bonanza that this series launched for NBC.

(Rating: *****)

Video & Audio

Oh, lovely. This is what cartoon releases should look like, as Warner and Hanna-Barbara have lovingly restored this cartoon to its former brilliance, seemingly frame by frame. 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. (Rating: *****)

As for the sound, 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. (Rating: **)

Bonus Features

This time we get an actual featurette, “I Smurf the Smurfs!”. Runing 17 minutes, it features a brief history of the characters and celebrities reminiscing about watching them in the ’80s. Again, check out the crappy video quality from the clips here and compare to the amazing restoration done on the episodes themselves. And also check what a smokin’ hottie Candace Cameron grew up to be. You also get some unrelated Warner trailers for other kids’ shows. (Rating: **)

The Pulse

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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