BRUSSELS - The people of Belgium have been left reeling by a public service commercial featuring the Smurfs, in which the blue-skinned cartoon characters' village is annihilated by warplanes.
The 25-second commercial is the work of UNICEF, and is to be broadcast on TV across Belgium next week as a public fundraiser. It is intended as the keystone of a drive, by UNICEF's Belgian arm, to raise about $145,000 for the rehabilitation of former child soldiers in Burundi.
The animation was approved by the family of the Smurfs' late creator, "Peyo."
Belgian television viewers were given a preview of the commercial earlier this week, when it was shown on the main evening news. Reactions ranged from approval to shock and, in the case of small children who saw the episode by accident, wailing terror.
UNICEF and IMPS, the family company that controls all rights to the Smurfs, have stipulated that it is not to be broadcast before 9 p.m.
The ad pulls no punches. It opens with the Smurfs dancing, hand-in-hand, around a campfire and singing the Smurf song. Bluebirds flutter past and rabbits gambol around their familiar village of mushroom- shaped houses until, without warning, bombs begin to rain from the sky.
Tiny Smurfs scatter and run in vain from the whistling bombs, before being felled by blast waves and fiery explosions. The final scene shows a scorched and tattered Baby Smurf sobbing inconsolably, surrounded by prone Smurfs.
The final frame bears the message: "Don't let war affect the lives of children.''
Philippe Henon, a spokesman for UNICEF Belgium, said his agency had set out to shock, after concluding that traditional images of suffering in Third World war zones had lost their power to move television viewers.
"It's controversial,'' he said. "We have never done something like this before, but we've learned over the years that the reaction to the more normal type of campaign is very limited.''
Belgium prides itself on being the home of some of the world's most famous cartoon characters -- from Tintin to Lucky Luke and the Smurfs, known to the Dutch-speaking half of the country as "Smurfen'' and as "Schtroumpfs'' to Belgium's French-speakers.
The advertising agency behind the campaign, Publicis, decided the best way to convey the impact of war on children was to tap into the earliest, happiest memories of Belgian television viewers. They chose the Smurfs, who first appeared in a Belgian comic in 1958.
Julie Lamoureux, Publicis' account director for the campaign, said the agency's original plans were toned down.
"We wanted something that was real war -- Smurfs losing arms, or a Smurf losing a head -- but they said no.''
The film has won tentative approval from the official Smurf fan club. A spokesman said, "I think it will wake up some people. It is so un-Smurf-like, it might get people to think.''
Hendrik Coysman, managing director of IMPS, agreed. "That crying baby really goes to your bones.''