Commentary

The Smurfification Of A New Generation

I kind of feel the same fondness for the Smurfs as I do for the recession ... of 1981. I didn't like either entity 30 years ago and I have not been looking forward to their imminent return. Even if the recession -- or even just "economic turmoil," as one story would have it -- is still being spliced together in the Congressional cutting room, the likes of Brainy, Papa, Grouchy, Gutsy and Smurfette are upon us this very day in the marketing vehicle known simply as "The Smurfs."

Writing in the Deseret News, Blair Howell says "there were three general reactions when a Smurf movie was announced: 'I love the Smurfs,' 'I hate the Smurfs' and 'What's a Smurf?'" While I may be in the middle category, the target audience of 6-to-12 year olds is decidedly in the latter. The blue-hue characters were last on broadcast TV in the Eighties. But that should have no particular impact on its success. Nor, for that matter, should the fact that Howell rates the creative content of the flick "more than three apples short of Smurftastic," laden by "mildly humorous gags and what-were-they-thinking one-liners."

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Sony "spent three years and enlisted more than 200 business partners in the build-up," the Wall Street Journal's Michelle Kung reports, "but it's not clear how much green the little blue characters will end up generating for the movie studio." Sony has "tie-ins ranging from blueberries to Club Med activity centers to McDonald's Happy Meal promotions that play off the characters' 'three apples high' stature." A Smurfs float has been in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York for the past three years (who could miss it?).

Here's a new stat on me: Panjiva Inc., which tracks imports, U.S. ports received 79 shipments of Smurfs-related toys, apparel and other merchandise last month -- a 19-fold increase from the same month last year. (But it has been repeatedly lapped by the last merchandising-to-kids vehicle we wrote about -- "Cars 2" -- which saw 421 shipment of gimcracks and geegaws arrive on these shores last month.

Earlier this week, the PR lady for the Empire State Building got before a podium to announce that the edifice would be bathed in Smurf blue on behalf of the movie and its charitable partner, UNICEF. The hopes were, she said, that "people would be Smurfy and donate."

The merchandising and product tie-ins cut both ways, of course, exposing kids to the characters at every possible touchy-feely point. "Even if the parent looks at a movie and says, 'I really don't want to see that movie,' they're gonna go if little Johnny and Susie are begging to go see it," Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com's box-office division told Ad Age's Andrew Hampp in a story about kids' flicks.

Hampp points out that family films have "a hefty amount of awareness working in their favor, largely thanks to multiple brand partners." "Rio," for example, partnered with a record 82 brands internationally, from "Rio"-branded blue Oreos in Latin America to Benjamin Moore paints in the U.S.

"The Smurfs," like the looming financial crisis, is amplified and vivified for the new millennium. The latter has the 24-hour news cycle and social media to keep every twist-and-turn rummaging about our minds; the latter has the requisite 3D treatment -- as if the Smurfs weren't annoying enough as one-dimensional characters.

There are real people -- "good actors" to boot, according to the Los Angeles Times' esteemable Betsy Sharkey -- in this version. And a plot, of sorts: "In the city, the Smurfs are soon tangled up with Patrick (Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) -- a young couple about to be parents. He's got career issues and an ad campaign to come up with, she's just doe-eyed lovely but a little worried about him. Soon enough their conflicts center around how to help the Smurfs make it back home and what lessons they can learn from Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters)."

Parents are in for a treat, Sharkey tells us, "a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, ahem, treat."

So, Sigmund, why this deep-seated hostility toward a seemingly harmless band of Franco-Belgian little people? Is it that Smurf bath toy my daughter had that got so grungy? Is it the cloying voices? The caps? The twisting of every sentence to accommodate the root-word "smurf"?

There is an "I hate the Smurfs" page on Facebook, but it's rather moribund and has but 240 members, so there's no clue there. ESPN.com's Matthew Berry who, as co-writer of "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles" says he knows a bad movie when he sees one, threatened to answer the question in a piece he posted yesterday, but I'm not sure he ever got around to an answer.

He did, however, tell us "there's apparently no answer to the questions that we all wonder, like why is there no Mama Smurf? How does Papa have all these kids? Why is there only one girl? How does the Smurf race procreate if they are all related? And again, just the one girl."

Hmmmm, go on ...

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