Aug 31 2011
I had a funny experience yesterday. I had decided to get up early to walk to Walmart, and on the way back, I saw that the Regal Theatre, at Lancaster Mall, was showing the movie entitled “The Smurfs”. So I decided to get a ticket and watch it.
The Smurfs – or “schtroumpfs”, in French – are little blue characters born out of the imagination of Belgian comic-creator Peyo. They were first side-characters in another comic series by Peyo, Johan et Pirlouit. I confess that I haven’t read much of Johan et Pirlouit, but I remember stories of knights and noble quests, and of fighting evil wizards in haunted swamps. In the 1950s, the Smurfs started appearing in a few episodes of the series to help Johan and Pirlouit in their quests.
Back then, the only Smurf with a specific character or appearance was Papa – known as “Le Grand Schtroumpf” in French. An interesting theory about him was published in my high school newspaper, so I’ll come back on this character a bit later.
In 1959, the Smurfs became the heroes of their own comic series, published by the Spirou Magazine – a famous magazine aimed at children in France and in Belgium. The tone was light, and the smurf language was used as a humoristic device with the reader: “a smurf that smurfs smurf” was the description of “a dragon that spits fire” in the first encounter that Johan and Pirlouit had with a Smurf, for example. The 2011 movie also uses smurf language in a humoristic way: “smurfhappens” is the title of the official website!
Even though stories about the Smurfs started being published more than fifty years ago, they are still widely read nowadays, and I read my share when I was a kid. I especially remember a family roadtrip to Spain, when we passed the border and there was a truck loaded with pigs next to us. I was reading a Smurf story (“les Malheurs du Schtroumpf Coquet” – “Vanity’s Misfortunes”) which involved a swamp creature, and my kid’s imagination somehow associated that creature with the smell of the pigs, making the story very vivid to me.
I could write more on the origins and translations of the word “schtroumpf” (“pitufo” in Spanish), or on the works of Umberto Ecco on “signified” and “signifying” in the smurf language, but I’ll just say that the movie was really good. It was funny, it was beautiful, it was scary, and it really surprised me, as I didn’t think that taking the Smurfs to New-York would work. But guess what? It worked, and it was even better than anything I could have imagined.
Gargamel, the evil wizard who keeps trying to kidnap the Smurfs so as to create the philosopher’s stone, was played by Hank Azaria, who did a wonderful job. Same thing for Neil Patrick Harris (“Barney Stinson” in “How I Met Your Mother”) and Jayma Mays (“Emma Pillsbury” in “Glee”), who played hosts to the Smurfs in NYC.
In short, I had a really good time and I really encourage you to go and check it out. It’s a good way to have fun and to discover a bit more about Franco-Belgian culture !
As for the theory about “Papa”, it consisted first in noticing that the Smurfs are characters of a utopian narrative rather than characters of a mere fairy-tale. When a problem arises, “Papa” finds solutions and puts the Smurfs in the right direction. His power over the little Smurf society is unquestioned and basically unrestricted. The original version of the comics, furthermore, never says that he is actually the father of the other Smurfs: rather, he is one of them, but he is called “Papa” (or “Grand Schtroumpf”) because of his superior intellectual abilities. Because of that, and because of an episode in which “Papa” asked the Smurfs (who already look alike) to elaborate a dance in which a hundred dancers would all be moving in the exact same way at the exact same time, someone writing in my high school newspaper in 2005 suggested that “Papa” could be a Stalinian figure. And, when you think about it, he is indeed dressed in red… I am not saying that this is the only possible reading of the comics, but it actually gives a lot to think about. “Papa” makes the Smurfs build a bridge and a dam on the Smurf river, in the comics, and is the only Smurf not to work on it with his own hands. Brainy could then be seen as some sort of Minister of Propaganda, as he always ends his sentences (in the comics, but not in the movie) with “… and Papa is always right”. Gargamel, the ambitious wizard who wants to create the Philosopher’s Stone (which can transform lead into gold), could then stand for our capitalist societies… Another example that children’s literature can have many many levels of reading.
Even though one could study the Smurfs in a political way, the magic of the stories does not disappear and both the comics and the movie remain extremely enjoyable: these are just different ways to look at the Smurfs, and to discover a little more of Belgian and French culture…. I hope you enjoy the movie, and if I find some Smurf comics in the area of Salem, I will definitely let you know.
Have a good first smurf of class, and see you later !
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