Like Ancient Gaul, “Asterix” is divided into three parts: the big, the rumbustious and the not very funny. This first live-action version of the well-known cartoon books about a bunch of feisty Frenchies battling the might of Rome is a consistently tasty feast, with its detailed re-creation of the period and characters, but it’s badly in need of seasoning in the script department. Much-hyped big-budgeter looks sure to open muscularly this week in France, where it goes out in a mighty 600 prints; but beyond continental Europe, and especially in English-speaking territories, its true market is as a dubbed video for kids.
At 274 million francs ($48 million), the pic ranks as the most expensive French-lingo pic ever, although the co-production was 33% financed by German and 16% by Italian sources. On home turf, the movie needs over 5 million admissions before distrib/co-producer AMLF-Pathe sees daylight. Film’s first offshore sales screening will be at AFM, in a subtitled version.
Though Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s comics have reputedly sold some 280 million copies worldwide since first launched in 1959, the overriding bulk of the sales have been in France and Germany. In many countries, especially the U.S., Asterix hasn’t entered the national consciousness in a way that’s necessary to launch a picture with foreign stars. Also, unlike “The Flintstones” (its closest American parallel), the strip doesn’t trade on modern jokes and deliberate anachronisms: It’s pure Gallic whimsy that gets its laughs from the energy of Uderzo’s illustrations, the linguistic tropes of Goscinny’s dialogue and the running joke of the cheeky underdog getting the better of a mightier foe.
In Claude Zidi’s uninflected, straightforward direction, the first quality is completely lost. Christian Clavier is a close enough fit for the crafty Asterix (though Zidi’s original choice, Daniel Auteuil, may have been closer), and Gerard Depardieu ditto for his big-bellied buddy Obelix, but however much the two grimace and gesticulate, they remain earthbound figures, when placed in real (or studio-real) settings, with none of the cartoon’s friskiness.
Zidi & Co. seem to have spent so much time getting the details right that they forgot about suspending auds’ disbelief. (It’s no surprise that the funniest character in the movie is Roberto Benigni’s klutzy Roman villain, Detritus, who’s the least encumbered by makeup and, being an invention for the movie, by the demands of meeting viewers’ expectations.)
The filmers also apparently forgot about the script, which is a largely sizzle-free affair — low on repartee and even lower on real jokes. Apart from Benigni’s wildly mugging perf, pic’s energy comes from its physical action rather than from the mouths of the characters, who, especially in the studio-created Gallic village sequences, act more like top-drawer thesps stranded in a lavish pantomime.
The original plot is back-of-a-coaster stuff. It’s 50 B.C., and Roman troops have cut a swath through Gaul to reach the English Channel. The only burr in Caesar’s saddle is a tiny, fortified village in Gaul that continues to resist, thanks to a magic Druid potion that turns its oddball burghers into unbeatable warriors. After dispatching some tax-collecting Romans and hijacking their treasure chest, the 50 villagers send 500 Roman troops packing.
Sensing a career opportunity, Detritus (Benigni), oily aide of Caesar (German actor Gottfried John, re-voiced), resolves to crush the Frenchmen for good by infiltrating a Druid convention in a sacred forest, capturing the head Druid, Panoramix (Claude Pieplu), and torturing him back at the Roman fort to reveal the magic potion’s formula. Asterix (Clavier) and Obelix (Depardieu) set out to rescue the old Druid, with Obelix disguised as a Roman who’s captured Asterix.
The episodic story is gussied up with a lot of character shtick that, when first introducing protags, is genuinely amusing. But like the f/x — mostly, villagers’ faces morphing after drinking the magic potion, and a shuttered effect for bodies flying through the air — repetition soon sets in: The characters simply don’t evolve in the way that a movie (rather than a comic strip) demands. Zidi and co-scripter Gerard Lauzier, the latter in charge of the dialogue, just move the protags around the board as the plot demands, with the same physical mannerisms and facial tics.
A side plot of Obelix having the hots for big-breasted blonde Falbala (Corsican-born supermodel Laetitia Casta) is the script’s only real attempt to give a character some depth. But the wrap-up to that strand — clumsily placed when the picture is almost over — further adds to the feeling that the movie is at least a reel too long.
Still, the money has all ended up on the screen. Though Caesar’s troops are augmented in some scenes by average CGI trickery, this isn’t one of those European movies where five extras pretend to be a whole Roman legion. With Jean Rabasse’s immensely detailed production design and Sylvie Gautrelet’s equally striking costumes, pic will bring tears to the eyes of adults who once grooved on Roman epics, and smiles to the faces of tykes who’ll appreciate the color and scope of the enterprise, boosted by Brit lenser Tony Pierce-Roberts’ widescreen canvases.
The movie’s visual elements come together most memorably in an arena scene in the Roman camp, where Asterix battles crocodiles, tarantulas (arachnophobes, beware) and even an elephant for the amusement of the troops.
Pic is basically Depardieu’s, as a kind of onion-shaped Fred Flintstone to Clavier’s bewhiskered Barney Rubble, though the actor has played this kind of lovable pudding before, and isn’t remotely stretched. Clavier is low-key, missing the sprightliness of the cartoon character, and is out-acted here by Benigni, whose villainous contortions lift the movie whenever he’s onscreen.
Of the rest of the cast, Michel Galabru comes off best as village chief Abraracourcix, while Jean-Pierre Castaldi as a plug-ugly centurion and John as an imposing Caesar manage to combine character with cartoon qualities. Thesps of the stature of Marianne Sagebrecht (voiced by Andrea Ferreol) and Arielle Dombasle are underemployed in nothing roles.
Dedicated to Goscinny (who died in 1977), the picture reps a major subtitling problem because, apart from the two leads, the characters go by different names in various territories: The punningly named musician Assurancetourix, for example, is known as Cacofonix in the U.K. and Malacoustix in the U.S. In dubbed versions, none of that will matter.
For the record, pic was shot in Brittany (exteriors) and studios in Bavaria (arena scenes) and Arpajon (the village).