Asterix & Obelix got a new film in 2016, and only one BPR writer was a big enough fan for the job: Darren. These Romans really are crazy.
With Hollywood being the all-important and dominating form of western cinema it is easy to forget other culturally-important touchstones. Our culture in the west is informed heavily by American culture and its icons. Even European icons are hard to figure out and become so idiosyncratic to the country of their origin in a way that a lot of American Icons do not. Case-in-point; Asterix and Obelix.
In France these two lovable “barbarians” are as important as Mickey Mouse or Batman, being a long running comic book series from Goscinny and Uderzo. They represent something to the French that other countries don’t quite understand, being a very un-stereotypical view of the French, not as the cultured and artistic people the rest of the west says they are but as indomitable Gauls. Rough and tough fighters, with their magic potion that grants them super strength and who will use anything as an excuse to belt each other with fish or whatever comes to hand and they love nothing more than teaching those pesky Romans not to come into their village.
They are so important to the French they have their own equivalent of Disneyland (Parc Asterix) and are wildly celebrated in French culture, featuring in video games, several animated movies with the likes of Paul Giamatti and even some live action interpretations with Gerard Depardieu and Oscar winner Roberto Begnini.
As a child I fell in love with Asterix and Obelix, first while watching Craig Charles as Asterix in Asterix conquers America and later by reading all the comics I could pick up in libraries. While I do not really get it as much as a French national might I do feel a connection to the character, and I’m saying all this because, without it, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to enjoy this film.
Asterix: The Mansion of the Gods was actually released in 2014 but has only seen a UK release recently, with a solid cast of British comedic talents such as Harry Enfield, Jack Whitehall and Catherine Tate; even Jim Broadbent manages to land a role as Caesar. The plot follows the almost traditional story of every Asterix comic: the Romans and Julius Caesar are up to their tricks again to get rid of those Indomitable Gauls. This time, they plan to build luxury apartments in the local forest in an attempt to absorb the Gauls into Rome without them noticing it. Will Asterix be able to stop them?
This is a plot that, while following the Gauls the way fans have come to love, has a very clear message. I expected there to be a ham-fisted message about saving the environment but instead it speaks of the dangers of gentrification, the cost of commercialisation and even has a memorable and witty joke about slave labour. This isn’t something I knew was coming from a franchise that has focussed and excelled in fun jokes, clever wordplay, poking fun at national stereotypes and plenty of cartoon violence, to deliver a plot dealing with some actual real world issues in France, and indeed the world, was a true surprise.
This is a movie that kept surprising me; for example, the animation had this wonderful cartoon-like quality. They clearly knew that to go for something akin to Pixar’s realism would be wrong for the characters and tone of the movie, instead going in a direction that reminded me a lot of Tartavosky, and the wonderful elasticity of movement that he gave to Hotel Transylvania.
Despite this, the film had a lot of downsides, even when they tried to stay as true to the source material as possible. One character is a highly insulting racist animation whose design really should have been left in the past.
Having an all British cast sounds good in theory but they felt wooden in their voice acting, with Jack Whitehall as Asterix being a particularly bad example. They just didn’t feel like they had fun while voicing it. Even when the acting was acceptable another problem reared its head, namely lip-syncing. To try to match the animation a lot of the dialogue was delivered as fast as humanly possible but didn’t allow any time for a lot of the humour to land and just breathe. Couple this with a truly obnoxious scoring for the movie, underlying the entire production with no attempt to just allow the movie to bask in silence at any point, and you have a work that is constantly moving but with no aim making it at times an unbearable cacophony of noise that I thought only the Bard was capable of.
If you have never experienced Asterix and Obelix before then this isn’t the movie for you. The jokes, while funny, are very much aimed at a knowing audience, not explaining some key information you need to understand some of the jokes or even the basic premise of what makes the Gauls so tough. As a spectacle this is a wonderful film, having fluid and dynamic style that seems to capture the original art and balance it well within the 3D realm but the constant barrage of humour and the speedy pacing of the film means that this truly is a movie that just doesn’t work for a larger, less French Audience.
For fans, there is a lot of fun to be had with this film but for everyone else, this isn’t the Asterix Movie that will make you drink deeply from the magic it has to offer.