Not unlike their aforementioned Belgian and French comic counterparts, the Johan and Pewit books had a pleasantly offbeat sensibility to go along with their playful, pastichelike stories; they were like self-aware fairy tales for older kids. The Smurfs, however â€” especially the eighties cartoons â€” were aimed toward a broader audience that included smaller children, and so eventually it did away with some of the storiesâ€™ darker overtones. Thatâ€™s essentially the version weâ€™re getting with these new CGI Smurfs movies. Or rather, that was the version we got with the first Smurfs movie in 2011, which brought the little blue medieval mushroom-dwellers and their nemesis Gargamel (Hank Azaria) into present-day New York City via a giant magic vortex, for some typical fish-out-of-water high jinks. In the sequel, Smurfs 2, director Raja Gosnell (Scooby-Doo, Beverly Hills Chihuahua) and his team peddle a lot of the same type of stuff in all the usual, uninspired ways. But they also manage to infuse their story with some unexpected darkness and welcome humanity, for which we should be somewhat grateful.
As a pop culture enterprise, the Smurfs donâ€™t get much respect nowadays, but they have noble roots. Created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo, they originated in the fifties as supporting characters in one of the adventures of the Medieval page Johan (a story later retitled The Smurfs and the Magic Flute). Though not quite as popular or as long-lived as Asterix or Tintin, Johan and his sidekick Pewit (or Pirlout) were the heroes of a well-known, fairly literate swashbuckling comic series that was popular for generations across Europe. The reason I mention this is because growing up in Turkey I was a pretty big fan of the Johan books, and when we moved to the U.S., I was shocked to discover that most of these stories hadnâ€™t been translated into English. But the Smurfs â€” those weird little blue dudes from the Magic Flute story â€” were everywhere! Imagine living in a world where the only thing people knew of Star Wars were the Ewoks.