Review: The Smurfs on Nickelodeon

The Smurfs” was a staple of my childhood during its original run from 1981 to 1989. I had dozens of the little plastic figures. They’re all gone now, but I have a few today sitting on top of my bookshelf not six feet from where I’m writing this.

My Smurfs figurine collection, sitting on top of a bookshelf next to some Ducktales figures

I don’t think I had any idea at the time that it was based on a comic, let alone one from Belgium. I didn’t even start reading comics until it ended, come to think of it.

It was just a show on NBC every Saturday morning. Like “Bugs Bunny and Friends” over on ABC, it was just always there. Every Saturday. I didn’t know life without those two things growing up.

Eventually, the show ran its course and NBC decided to ditch animation for live action tween sit-coms. I’m not saying “Saved By the Bell” killed Papa Smurf, but…

The Smurfs didn’t pop back up until a couple of live action/animated hybrid movies twenty years later. After that, they tried one totally CGI animated movie in 2017 titled “The Smurfs: The Lost Village.” It started to feel more like The Smurfs I remembered again. The characters belong in animation, not in front of live action backgrounds with highly detailed skin and clothing textures.

Sometimes, simpler is better.

On top of that, the director for the movie wanted to use as much of Peyo’s design work as possible in making the movie. It all fit together.

No IP gets left alone for very long these days, and so a new animated television series debuted in France earlier this year. Its style is based on “The Lost Village” movie. The animation was mostly done in Charleroi, Belgium.

Tonight on Nickelodeon at 7:30 p.m., the show will make its way onto American screens. Each episode is broken up into two shorter stories, roughly 12 minutes each.

Luckily, Hulu is streaming one story ahead of time. I watched Season 1, Episode 8, “Clumsy Not Clumsy,” as soon as I found it.

I have lots to say. Thankfully, it’s mostly good. So let’s do a review of the first available new Smurfs cartoon in thirty years.

“Clumsy Not Clumsy”

The Smurfs television series (2021) opening credits screen grab

Clumsy’s clumsiness gets him kidnapped by Gargamel. Gargamel has a special trinket that will help him be the opposite of who he is. He steals it and runs to safety. But Gargamel was pulling a fast one on him, and Clumsy is about to lead Gargamel right to Smurfs Village.

I probably spoiled too much already, so I’m stopping there. The story is cute. It works. It relies on one particular Smurf’s singular trait that is right there in his name. Classic, old school Smurf stuff.

It’s a friendly story and one that teaches a lesson about being yourself and being proud of who you are and the grass is always greener, etc. It’s the kind of moral you’d expect to find on a Saturday morning animated series.

It works. They don’t get too heavy handed with it. They don’t completely spell it out. Clumsy has a couple of opportunities to make a decision for himself on which way to go, and that leads to him learning new lessons.

It’s a solid piece of storytelling.

There’s no continuity in this series, I’m betting. The fact that Gargamel found Smurfs Village in this episode doesn’t mean he’s going to know where it is in any other episode. Who cares? It’s fun this way. The story is neatly isolated and runs on its own terms, just like in the comics.

If it makes you feel better: Pretend Superboy punches the sky and all continuity resets at the end of every episode. You killjoy, you.

There’s a tendency with shows like this one to remake them and add some layer of satire or social commentary in them to make them feel more “important”. While Peyo did have a couple of stories that touched on humanity’s quirks and thinly veiled political parables, most stories were not that. They were just fun little adventure tales with adorable blue characters. Honestly, I’m hoping that’s what we see from the rest of the episodes.

The Animation

It’s an interesting blend of character and background on this show. The backgrounds are actually painted in. Everything is NOT a CGI construct. Foreground and midground elements that might move are no doubt rigged up and read to go, but the backdrop of the scenes is always done as a painting.

It leads to an old school feeling I love that we’re watching a TV show, where we’re used to seeing the camera locked down while the actors act in a room. The room and the camera doesn’t always have to be moving. There’s no fancy camera moves in these scenes. It’s all well blocked, to use a film/TV term.

The exception to that is early in the episode when three Smurfs are chased down by Gargamel and Azrael. It’s a race through the forrest, over and under some trees, and ending in a stream. The camera swoops in and out of that one, following the Smurfs along and tracking their movement along the branches nicely.

That scene stands out in my memory more, no doubt, because it contrasts with the other scenes where the camera is more fixed and the environment is static. It gives those moments more impact.

Another interesting thing about that chase scene:

Speedlines are used as the Smurfs run into an empty tree trunk

They’re using a lot of speedlines to emphasize the motion. The animated series is borrowing language from comics. Granted, Peyo wasn’t a speedlines kind of guy. But I bet it sells well to the manga-reading kids in France and America. That’s how they think of comics, so adding a bit of that language to the animation might be attractive to them.

There’s also a very subtle trick they pull in a couple of places where they use a dot pattern that reminds me of the ben day pattern from old school comics. When lightning flashes outside of Gargamel’s house, there’s a split second moment where the castle is colored in with that pattern.

It’s a part of the show’s design pattern, too. You can see it in the opening credits:

The Smurfs opening credits with a bit of ben day pattern

(It’s not exactly ben day, but that’s the closest term I can think of for that. Does anyone more familiar with graphic design than me give me the real term? Comment below!)

It’s a well storyboarded show, too. There are a lot of strong frame compositions in the episode. It feels like a comic book put up on the TV screen, much the way The Matrix was so well composed with every frame, in large part because they had comic book artists doing that work.

The end result of all of this is that the Smurfs jump off the screen. They contrast nicely with their backgrounds. To help that along, there’s also a move towards blurring the background a lot in this series. It’s subtle, but they do keep most of the backgrounds just out of focus to give it that bokeh feeling. It adds a lot of dimension.

The Smurfs has crazy brokeh, such as this pic where the background fuzzes out so effectively.

Character Work

The Smurfs, themselves, are designed well. They can move in all directions and be shot from any angle. They resemble Peyo’s comics from the 1960s and 1970. You get the big noses and the floppy hats and the simple body shapes.

Smurfs aren’t that detailed: white pants, white hat, big nose and ears. These character designs match that.

I’m sure it’s a budget limitation, I’m sure, but they don’t overwork the designed by adding fancy textures to the 3D surfaces. The Smurfs’ pants aren’t clearly any particular material. There’s not a corduroy pattern or a silky shine to their pants. Their skin is all a delightful shade of blue with a relatively shiny pattern to it. It’s just enough to show shadows and create some highlights to make a three dimensional image without overwhelming the viewer or making the render farms explode.

A good example of the kind of lighting that falls on the Smurfs

There’s a very good sense of lighting in the show. You get lots of shadows cast from those noses and those large heads. The upper halves of their faces get good lightning, while the lower half that would be facing away from the sun is in shadows.

It’s simple top lighting outside, using the sun as the one strong light source, but it works. The lighting gets slightly more dramatic inside of Gargamel’s castle, but it’s not like their animated shafts of light or multiple sources bouncing off each other. This isn’t PIXAR. It is, however, very good for a television animated series.

The catch lights in the eyes also look painted in, not dynamically rendered. They’re at the 10 o’clock position in about 95% of the episode, no matter where the light source is.

They kept things simple, and I like that. The original cartoon was simple. It was Hanna Barbera animation of its time. You’ve seen all those walk cycles a million times, and all the repeating background tricks.

This series blows all of that away, though it is a completely different medium.

What they do spend their money on, though, is the animation. I’m impressed by how much movement is on the screen for a simple television series. There is a lot more going on here than just walk cycles and arm motions. These are characters that can take a pratfall, bounce off things, and even dance.

Brainy Smurf's foot stretches out for this animation

When I slowed it down to see what they were doing, I saw a lot of stretching and squashing, not just animated rigs acting in their tight confines. The animators went above and beyond that, adding little touches that feel hand-drawn to give these characters life. They learned some solid animation principles from the hand drawn animators, for sure.

Other Odds and Ends

Papa Smurf’s voice is going to take a while to grow on me. He doesn’t talk a lot in this episode, but it’s enough that I can’t quite figure it out yet. I accepted Gargamel more readily, for whatever reason. I don’t have a strong attachment to the individual Smurfs’ voices from the original series, so nothing felt wrong to me there.

The lip sync is off in a number of places. I’m guessing the show was animated to the original French language track and they dub the English track in afterwards without any new animation. It works 90% of the time. If you don’t look for it, you likely won’t even see it.

The editing, at times, feels a bit jumpy, like a YouTube editor had a go at putting this episode together. However, there’s a lot of smartly timed cuts to emphasize new moments or surprises. The chase sequence feels a bit like a video game. There’s a feeling that the point of view in it is moving along with the characters to keep things “playable.”

Clumsy Smurf goes all Bruno Mars

There is a musical number in the middle of the episode where Clumsy shows off how Not Clumsy he is by shaking his groove thing to a track that sounds suspiciously like a Bruno Mars song. He also adds in some Michael Jackson moves.

Normally, I’d find the whole sequence to be too pandering filler. The Smurfs should be timeless, not au courant., but it honestly reminded me of a lot of the kinds of things they’d do on Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s. Or maybe some “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is leaking into my nostalgia, too?

If there’s one thing I’d nit-pick on the show, it’s that sometimes the Smurfs’ hands look too big. That works a lot for gesture drawing, but sometimes in the animation it looks like the slightest move will result in a Smurf slapping their own face and foot at the same time. Look at the Smurf on the far left in the screenshot above. It’s a perspective thing, I’m sure, but his hands look longer than his arms.

Recommended?

If you like the Smurfs or if you grew up on the original series, I’d say it’s worth giving this new series a shot.

I don’t watch a lot of television anymore, but I’m planning on making time to watch more of this. It’s entertaining, and the animation is much better than I expected. The series has its own style, even while borrowing so heavily (thankfully) from the source material.

It’s a good looking show. The character designs hold up. The backgrounds are well done. The blocking and framing are all great. The added stylistic quirks are well chosen. I’m impressed by what they’re put together here.

I’m not fooling myself into thinking this is going to last another 8 years and transform the television animation landscape again. But I am going to enjoy it while it lasts.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

2 Comments

  1. Haven’t seen the show yet, but this looks so much better than those garbage live action movies.
    I didn’t care much about the 80s cartoon either, as the original books (first 10 volumes) were just so much better until the show’s cringy content (the robot, kid smurfs, etc) started seeping into them.

    The ben day dots would probably just be called halftone patterns.

    1. It’s funny, but when you’re 8, all animation looks awesome and amazing. By the time you’re 12 or so, you recognize the genius of the Termite Terrace folks who made those Bugs Bunny cartoons, and finally notice that The Smurfs are very cheaply done. (But I loved them all the same. The blinders just came off.) Of course, I’m a geek, so maybe I was the only one who noticed.

      Halftone patterns! Thanks, that’s the phrase I was looking for.