The Smurfs are a fictional race of small blue creatures that live in a forest somewhere in Europe. They were created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo, but are best-known to English-speaking audiences through the animated television series by Hanna-Barbera Productions.
Peyo was the creator of a comic strip serial in Le Journal de Spirou called "Johan & Pirlouit" (translated to English as "Johan and Peewit"). Set in the middle ages in Europe, Johan is a brave young page to the king, and Peewit (pronounced Pee-Wee) is his faithful, if boastful and cheating, midget sidekick. Johan rides off to defend the meek on his trusty horse, while Peewit gallops sporadically behind on his goat, named Biquette. The pair are driven by duty to their king, and the courage to defend the underpowered.
On October 23, 1958, Peyo introduced a new set of characters to the "Johan & Pirlouit" story. This alone was nothing so exciting, as the brave duo were constantly running into strange new people and places. This time, they were charged with recovering a Magic Flute, which required some sorcery by the wizard Homnibus. And in this manner, they summoned a Schtroumpf!
"Schtroumpf" appears to be an invented word, and would later be translated to nearly 30 languages. One of those languages would be the English version, "Smurf". In any case, The tiny blue people were a sudden hit, commercially speaking. They quickly moved into their own series, which became a tremendous success.
(As this is the English-language Wikipedia, we will use the English versions of names from here on.)
The storylines tended to be simple tales of bold adventure. The cast had a simple structure as well: all the characters look essentially alike - male, very short (just "three apples tall"), with blue skin, white trousers, white hat, and some additional accessory that identifies each one's personality. (For instance, Handy Smurf wears overalls instead of the standard trousers). The Smurfs fulfill simple archetypes of everyday people. Lazy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, Brainy Smurf, Poet Smurf, and so on. All smurfs are said to be 100 years old, and there are exactly 100 smurfs. Exceptions persist of course. Papa Smurf is 542 years old, has a bushy white beard, and red hat and trousers. Papa Smurf is the oldest and therefore the wisest of all Smurfs, and tends to be the leader in times of crisis. There also exists a Smurfette, the only female smurf. Baby Smurf joined the village later, bringing the number of smurfs up to 101 (Baby Smurf is also male, make no mistake). And, at some point, the smurflings were introduced: 3 young boys, and a young girl.
Characteristic of their language is the frequent use of the word "smurf" and derivatives of it in a variety of meanings. It is used by smurfs to describe a word they can't quite remember, or for a swear word.
The Smurfs live secretive lives, in houses made of mushrooms, somewhere in the middle of a deep forest. Johan & Peewit would make visits, as well as a number of other forest natives. Their most nefarious enemy is the sorceror Gargamel, and his cat Azrael. The bumbling duo's source of hatred for smurfs was never made especially clear. (Even less so when the story was adapted for television). Sometimes, Smurfs are said to be the secret ingredient to turn iron into gold. Sometimes, Smurfs are simply an excellent delicacy. Whatever the reason, it is very clear: Gargamel is the plague of everything Smurfy!
In 1965, a black and white 90 minute animated film was made about the Smurfs, Les Aventures des Schtroumpfs. It received little attention, and not much is known about it. However, in 1976, La Flûte à six schtroumpfs (an adaptation of the original "Johan and Peewit" story) was released. The prolific Michel Legrand provided the musical score, and a distinguished cast provided lush voices.
The Smurfs secured their place in pop culture immortality in 1981, when Hanna-Barbera began production for a new NBC televised Saturday morning cartoon. The cast included some of the greatest voice actors ever:
- Don Messick -- Papa Smurf/Azrael/Dreamy Smurf/Sleepy Smurf
- Paul Winchell -- Gargamel/Baby Smurf/Nosey Smurf
- Lucille Bliss -- Smurfette
- Barry Gordon -- Brainy Smurf
- Frank Welker -- Clockwork Smurf/Hefty Smurf/Peewit/Poet Smurf/Puppy
- William Callaway -- Clumsy Smurf/Painter Smurf
- Alan Young -- Miner Smurf/Farmer Smurf/Scaredy Smurf
- Hamilton Camp -- Greedy Smurf/Harmony Smurf
- Michael Bell -- Grouchy Smurf/Handy Smurf/Lazy Smurf/Johan
- June Foray -- Jokey Smurf/Mother Nature
The Smurfs television show enjoyed continued success until 1990, when Hanna-Barbera simply was no longer able to compete with the changing role of American animation. The mythos of the Saturday morning cartoon was falling apart, and more advanced animation techniques were in use. In short, The Smurfs' day had come and gone.
It is definitely worth noting, with the commercial success of the Smurf empire came the merchandising empire of Smurf miniatures, Smurf models, Smurf games, Smurf toys... there are whole collecting clubs devoted to collected PVC toys. A scare story that claimed Smurf figurines used leaded paint circulated in Britain in the 1970s, leading Jonathan King to release a single, Lick a Smurp for Christmas (All Fall Down) under the name of Father Abraphart and the Smurps.
They are cheery and lovable, but not void of all thought. The Smurfs have dreams of adventure and excitement. They have social and political ambitions. Some are lazy and some are annoying, but they all have a charm which is easy to identify with. The stories are sometimes simple.
For a while Smurfs were used to advertise Renault garages.