By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Smurfs, those blue-skinned cartoon gnomes with short tails and white hats, are celebrating their 50th anniversary with a Hollywood movie deal announced on Tuesday by Columbia Pictures.
The Sony Corp.-owned studio said it has acquired motion picture rights to the Belgian-born characters from Lafig Belgium S.A. for a big-screen Smurfs adaptation mixing computer-graphic imagery and live action.
A similar "hybrid" treatment was recently given to another popular cartoon ensemble in the highly successful "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movie from 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp.
Like Alvin and his rodent companions, the Smurfs will be created by CGI technology and interact with real actors portraying humans.
No casting decisions have been made or director chosen, but the studio is in negotiations with David Stem and David Weiss, the writing team behind both "Shrek" sequels and "The Rugrats Movie," to pen a Smurfs screenplay.
The Smurfs, simply drawn, diminutive beings -- just "three apples tall" -- with blue skin, white trousers and white caps, rank among the most widely recognized cartoon characters in the world.
Encompassing over 100 characters, the mostly male individuals all share the Smurf moniker and a descriptive first name -- such as Lazy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, Brainy Smurf and Grandpa Smurf.
Created in 1958 by Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford, aka Peyo, the Smurfs first appeared in a series of Belgium comic strips and were originally called Les Schtroumpfs in French.
They are perhaps best known to the English-speaking world from the long-running Hanna-Barbera cartoon series that aired on NBC's Saturday morning lineup through the 1980s and is still seen in roughly 30 countries.
The Smurf phenomenon has also spawned a huge merchandising empire comprising statuettes, games, toys and videos.
Movie rights to the property originally were secured in 2002, and the producer for the project, Jordan Kerner, had been developing a Smurfs feature at Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures, which now has an option to co-finance the film and distribute it internationally.
No time frame for production or release of the film has been set, but a Columbia spokesman said, "We are committed to it and hope to get moving on it as quickly as we can."