Sunday, July 23, 2017

Smurfing Awesome.

It seems that all the movies I wished I could talk about a while back are coming out on DVD.  So, I now have a second chance.

So, let’s do it.  Let’s talk about Smurfs.

Yes, Smurfs.

Don’t go quite yet.  Here in the United States, Smurfs get a bit of a bad rap.  The two movies featuring Neil Patrick Harris certainly didn’t help.  Even before that though, the Smurfs were regarded as little more than a cutesy ‘80s cartoon made more to sell toys and merchandise than provide quality entertainment.

That’s not the whole story, though.  You see, the Smurfs weren’t always an ‘80s cartoon.  They originally came into being as a Belgian comic book by the cartoonist known as Peyo.  Known as Les Schtroumpfs in French, they first appeared in a comic storyline called “The Flute with the Six Holes” in the series Johan and Peewit (Originally Johan and Pirlouit) about a medieval squire and his foolish sidekick.  They were given their own series later.
The thing is, the Smurfs and Peyo deserve more credit than they get, at least here in the US.  While many of the stories were cutesy comedy stories for kids, Peyo realized the potential of writing about a non-human society.  Namely, that he could introduce concepts from human society into it and play them in an exaggerated manner for the sake of comedy and commentary.  In other words, the Smurfs were capable of being used for satire.

No, really.

One of the most notable satirical Smurfs stories is one entitled “The Smurf King”.  It’s a story about how dictators legally rise to power.  I’m not kidding.  The story starts with Papa Smurf having to leave the village for a few days.  Figuring there’s no need to, Papa leaves without putting anyone in charge, just telling them to be good Smurfs while he’s gone.  With no one in charge, the Smurfs start arguing about what to do and ultimately who should be in charge.  Over time, they come to the idea of an election.  Initially, they all want to run and be in charge, but one nameless Smurf realizes something: if he promises to give people what he wants, people are more likely to vote for him.  So, he starts making campaign promises, even promises that contradict other promises he’s made.  He does win and what happens is that this Smurf starts taking more and more power over the other Smurfs’ daily lives.  One of the first things he does is have the other Smurfs build him a palace.  Things escalate quickly after that.  He starts imprisoning Smurfs just for doing things he doesn’t like.  A revolutionary group forms.  There’s even a rebellion.  Except it all ends when Papa Smurf shows up again.  One line Papa Smurf says is particularly memorable when he’s lecturing his little Smurfs “Aren’t you ashamed?  You’ve been acting like human beings!!”

Not all of Peyo’s satirical ideas hold up, though.  In this case I’m talking about “The Smurfette”.

You’ve probably heard of Smurfette.  You may have even heard of “The Smurfette Principle”.  However, you may not know where Smurfette came from.  The story “The Smurfette” centers on a plot by Gargamel to once again capture the Smurfs for his usual ill-defined purposes (either eat them or turn them into gold.  It varies.  The main point is that he’s there to create conflict).  So, he comes to the notion of creating a Smurfette.  He does this by fashioning her out of clay Galatea-style and bringing her to life.  And what is Smurfette like once she’s alive?  Well, she’s flighty, fickle, vain, flirtatious, easily scared of creepy crawly things and a bit preoccupied with pretty things like flowers and dresses.  In other words, she possesses nearly every negative stereotype lobbed at women over the years.  She is more or less a parody of femininity.  Granted, she was created by Gargamel who doesn’t exactly strike me as a feminist.  He even has this long incantation where he says all the negative traits he’s giving her.  It’s a little much.  You’d think they might have at least given her some of the positive stereotypes associated with women (She could have been Nurturing Smurf.  Or Empathetic Smurf).  Ultimately, it’s supposed to be a story about introducing sexual or gender politics into a society that never had known it before and it kind of takes a dim view of it.  I don’t think Gargamel even checks in on his little blue agent.  He just unleashes her into the world and figures Smurf society will just naturally be destroyed.  The male Smurfs don’t exactly come out of it looking that good either.  They treat Smurfette awful at the beginning when she looks kind of frumpy but fall all over themselves to impress her later when she gets a makeover, making them look awfully shallow.  But still, like I said, it’s a bit much.   And I’m pretty sure Peyo received some flak for this characterization.

Luckily, new people are free to take another crack at the character.
The movie Smurfs: The Lost Village isn’t fantastic by any means.  More of a standard, entertaining kids’ film.  There aren’t an abundance of layers that will appeal to a number of adults.  It even has the things that too many animated movies have like an abundance of pop songs and a dance party ending.  However, it tells the story it’s trying to tell pretty well and provides a rather solid character arc for Smurfette.  Beware, some spoilers lie ahead.

The story of Smurfs: The Lost Village concerns Smurfette feeling out of place in the Smurf Village.  Everyone knows she was created by Gargamel, so she’s different on that front.  But she’s also one of the few Smurfs whose character and place isn’t defined.  Unlike Clumsy, Hefty, Brainy, Handy, Jokey and even Nosey, her name doesn’t say anything about her except that she’s an “ette”.  Anyway, during an escape from Gargamel, they find out about a lost village out beyond a giant wall in a part of the forest they had never been in before.  Knowing that Gargamel knows about the lost village too, Smurfette heads off into the unknown forest to warn them.  She’s soon joined by Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty.  A number of really gorgeous animated scenes happen until they reach the Lost Village, where they discover it is a village entirely of female Smurfs with somewhat Amazonian attributes (Note to DC Comics fans who might be reading this: I am fighting the urge to make a comparison to the Guardians and Zamarons right now).  Anyway, along the journey Smurfette really steps up and shows what she’s capable of, even to the point of saving the day.  Mind you, it helps that the movie Smurfette is written in a more well-rounded manner and not like the flighty flake Peyo first dreamed up.  But the big takeaway is the ultimate message.  When the other Smurfs are asked how to describe Smurfette, they all have a different answer.  The reason ultimately alluded to is that Smurfette doesn’t have a traditional Smurf name because it couldn’t possibly define her.  She can’t be defined like that because ultimately, Smurfette can be anything she wants to be.

So, she went from flakey stereotype to well-rounded feminist (or at least semi-feminist) character.  That is the journey of Smurfette.

So, I hope I got some of my American readers to reconsider those little blue people called the Smurfs.  And if I’ve bored any of my European readers, then I’m just sorry.  If you have any observations, comments or questions, leave them in the comments section below.  If you just want to ask me how an all male society of creatures manages to reproduce, I guess you can do that too.  But if you like what you read, please spread the word on Universes Beckon for more pop culture related content.  It also never hurts to subscribe.

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