BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Envisaged as secondary characters for a single cartoon album, the blue gnomes widely known as the Smurfs will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year with a movie deal and an invasion of new female characters.
Smurfs -- known in the original Belgian comic strip as Schtroumpfs -- may only be as tall as three apples and do little more than forage for food and mend the village dam, but the business they have created in over 30 languages is put at some $4 billion, generating $5-12 million in royalties per year.
They will mark 50 years with a series of new comic adventures, statuettes, an exhibition at Brussels' cartoon museum, a set of commemorative stamps and, in a reflection of changing times, more females in their mushroom cottage village.
Blond-haired Smurfette, originally created by evil sorcerer Gargamel to foster jealous rivalry in the community, has been the single love interest for almost every other Smurf for years.
"There have been dramatic changes in socio-cultural values in the past 20 to 25 years," Hendrik Coysman, head of Smurf rights holder IMPS told a news conference on Monday. "One of these is girl empowerment."
"So, there will be a greater female presence in the Smurf village and this will, of course, be a basis for new stories and this will probably turn upside down certain traditional situations within the village."
Nine Culliford, the widow of Belgian cartoonist Peyo who was instrumental in choosing the color blue, argued that her husband Pierre had never been overtly political, but avidly read the newspaper and made his creations address current themes.
Notable among them was the 1973 story of the conflict between northern and southern clans divided by language, echoing the ongoing dispute between Belgium's Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south.
Thierry Culliford, Peyo's 52-year-old son, argues the Smurfs are otherwise timeless, explaining their continued appeal.
"They live in the Middle Ages ... They don't live in the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s so the clothing or their look doesn't change ... After 50 years we see they are still popular with children."
The Smurfs will be brought into the modern age, nonetheless, with a computer-animated 3-D style movie.
IMPS has agreed a deal with Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom. A script is being written and further details are set to follow in the coming weeks.
Coysman also has hopes for a 26-episode series of half-hour shorts to add to the 272 that Hanna-Barbera made in the 1980s to propel the Smurfs around the world.
The 50th anniversary could also mark a return for Johan and Peewit, the characters that first stumbled across the vibrant village and the curious "Smurf" language in "The Magic Flute" cartoon album in October 1958.
Additional reporting by Elaine Codogno; Editing by Caroline Drees