8 April 2002 | dr_foreman
good, clean fun
When I was a little kid, my Dad picked up a copy of The Twelve Tasks of Asterix at the local video store. Oh, happy day! I've been completely enamored with Asterix and his adventures ever since.
The wily little Gaul first appeared in 1959, in a French children's magazine, and gradually his creators Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo built him up into a national phenomenon. Asterix has his own cartoons, his own theme park, and now his own big-budget movies (a pair of the most expensive French films ever made, in fact). Wildly popular throughout Europe and even parts of Asia, Asterix remains obscure in the United States, which is why this film has seen no official distribution here. Thankfully, Miramax recently purchased the rights to both this movie and its sequel, Asterix: Mission Cleopatra, so they should both be seen in the U.S. eventually.
The concept behind the character is simple. Asterix is a small, cunning warrior who, in conjunction with his strong, dumb friend Obelix, travels the Roman Empire thwarting the plans of Caesar and his imperialist minions. Aiding Asterix in his quest is the druid Getafix, who brews a magical potion that endows its drinker with super-strength.
After seeing disastrous big-screen revivals of Godzilla, The Avengers, and Star Wars, I was reluctant to see this poorly-reviewed film. Sure, it did great box office, earning more than double its $45 million price tag, but so what? Popularity isn't always an indicator of quality.
But hey, I liked it!
The film's design is just gorgeous, with the outrageous settings and costumes from the comic strips recreated in loving detail. The soundtrack is lovely, creating a real "period" feel. The opening segments are a big slow the fish fight and the boulder-dropping sequence are pretty silly. But soon after that, the story takes off like a bullet.
The film has an episodic structure, with multiple subplots running at once. This has opened the film up to criticism, but I rather liked seeing a "greatest hits of Asterix" movie. It's all here giant battles in the arena, Obelix falling in love with Panacea, Asterix clashing with a charlatan soothsayer, Getafix winning the golden sickle at the annual druid's conference. It's a cut-and-paste combination of several Asterix comics, but it works.
Much of the film's success is owed to the cast. Depardieu was born to play Obelix, and he dives into the role without pretense, playing the oaf with comic flair. Clavier's Asterix has been panned by some but I thought he was witty, and he bears an almost eerie resemblance to the comic book character in some shots. Benigni is the ideal Asterix villain, hamming it up like a lunatic, and Laetitia Casta makes a gorgeous Panacea.
The special effects are delightful. Romans get punched over hill and dale, Asterix pulls hilarious faces when he drinks his potion, and clever visual trickery makes dozens of Roman extras look like hundreds. The sets are spacious and impressive, and the film has wonderfully rich colors (particularly reds, which appear everywhere Asterix's pants, the Roman uniforms and tents, the banners in the arena
Of course it's just silly rubbish, but it's perfect entertainment for kids and kids-at-heart. No one is killed and there's nothing mean-spirited about it. Big-budget though it is, the film has a European wit and silliness that is lacking in American action films. French critics were afraid that the film would be imitation Hollywood rubbish, infesting the otherwise "pure" French cinema, but I think those fears are unfounded. There's nothing commercial about Asterix, thank goodness.
Citizen Kane it ain't, but I was thoroughly entertained. Ignore the film's mostly bad reviews and give it a try (if you can get a copy, that is!). I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.