A Briton village under siege by Julius Caesar sends a one-man, kilt-wearing embassy to a hamlet in Gaul in “Asterix & Obelix: God Save Britannia,” the fourth live-action adaptation of the French comics and first outing in (serviceable) 3D. Though even more anachronistic than its predecessors (“Ben Hur’s” famous Rolex would totally pass unnoticed here) and similarly uneven, the pic keeps things playful, and restores some of the bonhomie between the titular leads that previous pics lacked. However, this four-way Euro co-production feels even more specifically Gallic than usual, perhaps spelling somewhat less fantastic international prospects.
The highest-grossing “Asterix,” the critically drubbed “Asterix at the Olympic Games” (2008), made $130 million worldwide, with roughly half that amount from France and practically nothing from Anglo-Saxon countries. Although set in Blighty, this installment is unlikely to change that commercial ratio, though added 3D premiums and decent local reviews suggest solid hauls in Gaul and Germany, where the comics remain popular.
New-to-the-series director Laurent Tirard (“Le petit Nicolas”) and his co-scribes, Gregoire Vigneron and Benjamin Guedj, here adapt the 1966 comic “Asterix in Britain,” with a storyline from “Asterix and the Normans” smoothly spliced in. The Romans are invading Britain, led by the imperious Caesar (Fabrice Luchini). Cordelia (Catherine Deneuve), a local Briton queen who fears she might be overrun, dispatches Anticlimax (Guillaume Gallienne) to the one French village that’s resisted Caesar’s army.
In the idyllic hamlet, the lithe and clever Asterix (Edouard Baer, taking over for Christian Clavier and Clovis Cornillac) and the rotund, extremely forceful Obelix (Gerard Depardieu, the only actor encoring), have their hands full with Justforkix (Vincent Lacoste), a teenage layabout they’re supposed to make a man out of. After Anticlimax’s plea for help, the trio joins the envoy to escort a barrel of their invincibility potion back to Britain.
Tirard’s version of Roman-era Blighty translates many of the comic’s often anachronistic ideas into setpieces and production details, from a rugby match to a swinging evocation of Roman-occupied faux city Londinium. There are also the obligatory jabs at contempo issues, including immigrant policies and company audits, and pop-culture references ranging from Kubrick to “Star Wars” and “300.” Comicbook violence is omnipresent and quickly grows repetitive.
One of the delights of the original was the way the Britons mangled the French language with occasional use of English grammar, ending sentences with the incorrect “n’est-il pas?” (a literal translation of “isn’t it?”). There’s some of that here, too, though Tirard also has the French actors playing the Britons speak with fake English accents, a gamble that doesn’t quite pay off (and will probably be lost on auds relying on subtitles). Instead, it underlines how these proto-Brits are seen from an exclusively French p.o.v., making some scenes come off like big-budget in-jokes.
By contrast, the entertaining storyline lifted from “Normans,” involving the terrorized Justforkix and his encounters with Caesar’s fearless barbarians-for-hire, requires no translation. It also benefits from smart casting: Lacoste is perfectly maladroit as Justforkix, while Bouli Lanners has a ball as the corpulent Norman leader.
Depardieu has become practically synonymous with his role as Obelix, and Baer is an inspired choice for Asterix, imbuing the character with a refreshing astuteness; when Tirard simply focuses on the two men’s strong, almost more-than-friendly rapport, one nearly forgets these are live-action caricatures rather than real human beings. Supporting cast is mostly fine, with Deneuve regal and Luchini serious yet funny. Even former weather girl Charlotte Le Bon, as a fair Briton lass, registers amid the acting heavyweights. A hyperactive Valerie Lemercier, as the newly invented Miss Macintosh, reps a weak link as an incongruous love interest.
Shot on location in Malta, Hungary and Ireland, “Britannia” looks like an expensive affair, with comicbook-style visual and mechanical effects deftly integrated. Though the heroes’ wardrobe hasn’t evolved much, costume designer Pierre-Jean Larroque amuses himself by giving yards of anachronistic tartan for Cordelia and Anticlimax, while Justforkix’s contempo attire looks like it could have come from H&M. Klaus Badelt’s score is likewise a jumble of different influences.
Pic is dedicated to the memory of its stereographer, the late Alain Derobe (“Pina”). Use of 3D is clean and bright but adds little to the experience.