The Smurfs were a European phenomenon long before they were a success story as American collectibles and iconic Saturday morning TV stars. They were introduced in a comic album titled The Flute with Six Holes, as supporting characters in Peyo’s quasi-medieval comics about a brave knight named Johan and his loyal and diminutive squire Peewit. The Smurfs soon garnered enough popularity to spin off into their own comics, quickly eclipsing Johan and Peewit’s popularity to such a degree that the knight and squire were only occasional supporting characters in the Hanna-Barbera animated series that introduced the Smurfs to most of their American fans. The Flute with Six Holes (soon retitled to The Flute with Six Smurfs, echoing the Smurfs’ linguistic peculiarity) was adapted for a French animated feature film in 1976, eventually making its way to the United States during the height of Smurf-mania but without the same cast or continuity as the Hanna-Barbera show. Shout! Factory has just released a DVD of this movie for US audiences, but it’s quite a disappointment on a number of levels.
One of Peewit’s characteristics is that he imagines himself to be a master musician, when most people around him would rather have their teeth pulled or leap out of windows than listen to his cacophony. This changes when he finds a strange flute with only six holes in it, and quickly learns that anyone who hears the music from it is compelled to dance until they literally collapse from exhaustion. While Peewit is happy to simply entertain himself using the flute around the castle, the malicious villain McCreep hears of the flute and steals it away from Peewit for his own, much more mercenary purposes. When McCreep goes on a massive robbery spree with the help of the flute, it’s up to Johan and Peewit to find the creators of the original flute to see if there’s a way to counter its magic. Those creators turn out to be the Smurfs, who sadly reveal that they can’t do anything about the flute, but if they made another one …
The best news about The Smurfs and the Magic Flute is that it looks terrific–head-and-shoulders over almost any cartoon from the time that didn’t come from Disney. The look and feel of the characters and the settings ape Peyo’s style perfectly, with graceful and fluid animation and a muted but pleasing color palette. Unfortunately, I suspect that the movie’s faithfulness to Peyo’s original comic is what undoes it in the end, because the delightful animation is mated to a story that generates extremely little narrative momentum. The movie is repetitive to the point of distraction, pounding out every single plot point well after even the slowest audience member will have gotten the message. This endless repetition makes the movie feel extremely slight and disorganized, and while this is a trait of the original Smurfs comics as well, it seems more like a charming quirk of pacing on the page than it does on screen. While I think the nature of reading a comic means that something can work on a page and not on a screen (as Peanuts animated specials and the Batman: Year One animated movie demonstrated), I also suspect that a lot of these gags got drawn out to such insufferable lengths just to pad the running time of the film. As a comparison, Peyo’s short story “The Black Smurfs” was adapted quite faithfully and successfully as “The Purple Smurfs” for the Hanna-Barbera TV show at just over 10 minutes. Even though The Smurfs and the Magic Flute graphic novel is roughly three times longer, that works out to something just a bit bigger than a TV special; this movie runs for a little more than an hour. Several musical numbers in the film also support the hypothesis that the producers were padding the film for time, since they’re all pretty pointless and not all that enjoyable. About the only extended sequence that manages to justify its length is the climactic scene of the film, as Peewit and McCreep engage in an lively and hilarious duel, and one wishes the rest of the film shared the same sense of energy.
There are also numerous complaints to level at this DVD of The Smurfs and the Magic Flute. While it seems that the entire film has been cleaned up, it is also presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen. I was hoping the film would be a retro throwback, not the DVD presentation of it. The movie also shifts to a much dirtier, grainier image rather jarringly for the end credits, and I suspect the reason is rooted in decisions on the soundtrack to the movie. The Smurfs and the Magic Flute was originally in French, but dubbed into English once for British audiences and then again for American ones. This disc contains only the UK English soundtrack, which makes several non-trivial alterations to the original language script, such as changing Johan and Peewit to John and William, respectively. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the superlative dubbing jobs from FUNimation, but it also seems like the soundtrack mates poorly to the images. While the translation seems OK, there’s a queer disconnect between what’s being said and what’s being shown that makes the film feel more like an old Godzilla or Hong Kong chop-socky film from the 1970’s. The end credits would indicate that there was no time or interest in restoring the English dub end credits, or redoing the credits over a remastered end title sequence (and to be honest, either decision seems pretty lame and lazy to me). Bonuses for the disc are all text-based and seem to have been taken from the press kit for the movie when it was released in the United States in the mid-1980’s. Character names change again and references are quite dated, but the fundamental information on the history of the Smurfs and this story in particular are sound.
It’s hard to recommend this DVD on any level to anyone but the most hardcore Smurf completist. The movie itself isn’t as enjoyable as it could be, and the multiple disappointing aspects of the DVD make it a hard sell even to fans who don’t mind the pacing issues of the film. Honestly, the hardcore would probably do better seeking out an import version of the disc that contains the original French soundtrack.