Smurf and Re-Smurf

My son gripped my hand tight, giggling with glee, and said for the second time in half an hour:

“This is a really, really fun movie!”

And it was, actually. Lord knows I survived enough of the 1980s cartoon, I was probably well inoculated against smurfitis. What surprised me was how thoroughly infectious it turned out to be for a four-year old born decades after the primary outbreak. He had no Saturday morning nostalgia, no lingering amusement at smurf-talk or annoyance at “the song.” He certainly doesn’t remember a time when legions of those little plastic figures were a mainstay in every schoolroom desk and pencil box, traded on playgrounds like baseball cards. In fact his sole exposure to them before the film merchandising began was through the original Belgian comics by Peyo, now lovingly collected and reprinted in English by Papercutz.

He had received a couple of volumes at Christmas and was thoroughly delighted. They are one of Europe’s great contributions to comic book storytelling, alongside Asterix & Tintin. If you only know the Smurfs by way of Hanna-Barbera, you really should check these out. The film even pays homage to Les Schtroumpfs’ heritage in comics at a critical juncture, sourcing the incantation that will send them home from a dusty tome of their original 1958 French language adventures.

Purely inoffensive family fun (unless, of course, “the song” sends you into a murderous rage), the Smurfs film stands as an excellent example of a genre of entertainment I have come to especially love now that I am a parent: the in-continuity revival. Where the traditional sequel (or prequel) seeks to deliver a follow-up (or precursor) story to a successful original, the in-continuity revival revisits a whole fictional setting to continue telling stories in. The in-continuity revival also differs from a reboot, where a fictional setting is completely reinvented in a new context for the familiar characters to inhabit (like the new BBC Sherlock, the new Battlestar Galactica or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek). The world of the in-continuity revival is the same as in previous incarnations, though often significant periods of time have elapsed for both characters and the audience. This has been done badly (think: the “Very Brady” sequels) and at times well (like the “Mission Impossible” and even the “Charlie’s Angels” film franchises). This is the approach taken by the Smurfs, and it works pretty well. When Hank Azaria’s Gargamel actually manages to find the Smurf village, there’s a certain upping of stakes for the parents as well as the kids. It seem unthinkable “after all these years.”

The real power of the in-continuity revival is its ability to bridge an original audience with a new one. Fans of the prior version are not alienated since they are in fact watching “the same” show or movie they have always loved. New viewers, however, feel they are seeing something new and exciting, not some geeky rerun. When shared with someone you love, the in-continuity revival can be an entertaining bonding experience through story and shared character.

Here is a countdown of my five favorite in-continuity revivals, and the relationships they help to forge. What are some of yours?

5. Young Justice

Though entirely different in tone, the setting and timeline makes it clear this is nothing less than a high-stakes sequel to the original Super Friends as the sidekicks now get their turn at bat. [Pun intended.] Always a delight to watch with my son.

4. Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I guess this is a prequel of sorts, since it falls chronologically before the original Star Wars trilogy. However, even though the characters’ fates are known to the audience, the political intrigue and newsreel cliffhanger peril often makes this show a nailbiter. Oddly, not one that I share with my son, even though (as I have written) it is a staple for him and his friends.

3. Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated

This one is fun for me, my wife and my older son, a frequently tongue-in-cheek follow-up to the original 1969 Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? A period piece, somewhat anachronistically set in the early 1970s (with cell phones and laptops), this is Scooby-Doo with consequence. Rather than the stand alone “mask of the week” format we all know and love, this show builds off that premise with the gang now embroiled in an ongoing story arc spanning one gigantic conspiracy-driven investigation. Each episode is a numbered chapter in the whole, with all the subtext of the original now brought hilariously to the surface: can Daphne ever get Fred to look her way? Shaggy’s dating Velma, who is jealous of Scooby. Meanwhile, a mysterious “Mister E” is dropping clues as to the fates of an even earlier team of teenage sleuths who disappeared twenty years before. Are Scooby and the gang doomed to suffer their fate too? Thoroughly modernized, funny and told with an X-Files twist.

2. Doctor Who

The original was already the longest running sci-fi show in television history, running uninterrupted from 1963 through the late 1980s. When the BBC opted to revive it six years ago, they made the wise choice of simply continuing the good Doctor’s adventures… leaving it to the audience to piece together all that had happened to him since last we traveled in his company. The show hinges on the unique and practical producers’ device of “regenerating” the immortal main character every few years into a new actor… er, body after each critical injury. Always the same man, the time traveling Doctor is nonetheless a completely different personality with each performer, making for multi-generational fun among his viewers who all square off around “their doctor.” Mine, of course were Tom Baker and Peter Davison (Doctors number four and five) back when the shoestring budget made from some truly… creative?… monster and set design (think early Star Trek on a starvation diet). Now, however, the UK has rightly decided that Doctor Who is one of its most significant cultural exports, and is giving him the budget he deserves. Despite herself, my wife has slowly climbed aboard, making both David Tennant and Matt Smith (Doctors number ten and eleven) our Doctor.

And of course, the most successful in-continuity revival of them all:

1. Star Trek: The Next Generation

Time was, I watched the original 79 Gene Roddenberry Star Trek episodes by myself or with my dad… over and over and over. The first and most successful of many later spin-offs, The Next Generation was a very welcome infusion of new stories in the same setting by the same creative vision. Set 85 years after the original, it allowed for an updated design aesthetic (now painfully dated in the 1980s rather than the 1960s) as well as new story potential as it explored a much bigger version of the same universe glimpsed in the original. So much had changed, long-time fans wanted to know more, yet the vision was so consistent, the two series were believably one at heart. With a modern feel, and sci-fi such a rarity on primetime television in those years, it was the go-to show for mainstream audiences with an imagination. The Next Generation is what made Star Trek entertainment for the masses in the early 1990s. Where I might have talked about Star Trek with a few geek friends as a child at recess, I warmly recall a hundred non-Trekkies literally jamming our dorm lounge for the Season Four premiere resolving the infamous Borg cliffhanger, all to see what happened to Captain Picard. This was Star Trek that I could watch with friends and strangers and mom and brothers and uncles and cousins… and of course with my dad.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One thought on “Smurf and Re-Smurf

  1. Paul Grubb

    Fantastic, Chris! Hadn’t given much thought – let alone an appropriate name – to the concept of remaining in continuity while regenerating an entire series. But when I reflect on it, I find that those types of efforts are my favorite, perhaps because I am given the opportunity to better know the characters since what has already happened before is still entirely valid to the new adventures.

    Contrast this with an increasingly annoying tendency of movie studios to simply restart an entire superhero franchise (like Superman or Batman), ignoring the possibilities available to them if they just kept rolling with the same central character (like the good Doctor or even, until recently, a character like James Bond). Instead, the studios churn through two or three iconic villains per movie and then start over again, like they’re about to do with Spider-Man. Even the new Batman series which has been so well-received is said to be ending with the next film, destined (I’m sure) to one day crank up again with yet another Joker or Riddler to kick around.

    At any rate, I really enjoy your Top 5 list. My favorites are, of course, the top two, though my recent ravenous consumption of Doctor Who would probably cause me to swap their two positions on my personal list. Heck, I just finished re-watching the entire Key to Time saga with our old pal Tom Baker at the controls. Despite the awful effects, the story-telling and, of course, the humor is still fantastic.

    And, finally, I’m happy you mentioned that night in the dorm (Loro, I believe it was) watching the resolution of the Picard’s Borg nightmare. I was one of those many people in that lounge, of course, and I remember that feeling of excitement and community so well. Really neat of you to acknowledge that as part of your piece.

    Excellent, thought-provoking work, as usual. Thanks!

    – Paul


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